THE carping has begun even before Fraser Forster makes his long-awaited England debut. The Celtic goalkeeper is expected to win a first cap in the friendly with Chile at Wembley on Friday.
The inevitability of such an elevation for the 24-year-old – particularly in light of England No.1 Joe Hart’s banishment to the bench by Manchester City – prompted discussion on BBC’s Five Live last week about Forster’s suitability for such a role. Or rather unsuitability, when his domestic environment of the Scottish Premiership was deemed to see him playing at a standard well below even the English Championship.
When put to Neil Lennon, such an assertion was always going to be met with rejection. But the Celtic manager was able to offer compelling, and surprising, evidence for his counter claim.
“I don’t go along with that,” he said. “The quality of football here is decent. I’ve watched a lot of Championship games this season already and not been overly impressed by it, I think gates are down as well in the Championship. The fact is Fraser has Champions League football and not a lot of other goalkeepers have that. And he has performed fantastically well, so I think he has more than proved his capabilities to play in the England squad.
“We are playing the cream and we have done the last two seasons and even before that in the Europa League against Udinese and Rennes, where he produced world-class performances. So there shouldn’t be an argument and I don’t think there is now. It will be brilliant [if Forster’s capped]. He’s certainly earned it, regardless of Joe’s current form. Even if Joe was flying I think he [Forster] still earned the opportunity to play for England. And it would be something very special for us all.”
It may require some of those special Champions League performances from Forster for Celtic even to salvage third place in Group H following their miserable showing away to Ajax. They could yet require four points from their remaining fixtures – the home game against AC Milan in three weeks then the trip to the Nou Camp – to avoid bottom slot.
Yet for all that Lennon’s side were dreadful in Amsterdam, the surprise the outcome has elicited, and filleting of the Scottish champions’ football it has sparked, seems oddly overstated. Celtic invariably lose away in the competition. As evidenced by the fact they have suffered 21 defeats in 23 group assignments. In most of these they have performed wretchedly. Moreover, even in harvesting ten points last year, they were outplayed for lengthy spells in four of their six games. Indeed, if it weren’t for set-pieces, deflections and own goals, not only would Celtic never have been near the last 16, they would have hardly netted at all.
Talk of some sort of decline suggest a previous incline. In truth, Celtic prosper by hanging in and hoping for breaks. The only difference now is that, with their current back five, they can, most times, hang in a little better than before. They almost never slice teams open – as Ajax did – and especially not away from home. Heck, in six Champions League group away games, even Henrik Larsson only scored once. Georgios Samaras has a better such strike rate, but his exploits in notching goals in all three away group games last season – on his way to outscoring Gary Hooper in the competition, incidentally – was never going to be repeatable.
Amidst all this, there remains one obvious comfort for Lennon. “There’s still a lot at stake,” he said. “It’s important that psychologically we play better, and it’s a big ask because Milan are a good side. My only disappointment was the first-half performance [in Amsterdam]. It was the biggest disappointment at that level in the last couple of years. It wasn’t like us. We didn’t work as a team, we didn’t work hard enough with or without the ball. We got a good reaction second-half and did have chances and should have taken one of them. But you can’t play at that level and not turn up for the first-half. I was delighted to come in at 0-0 but it wasn’t as if we were getting battered. Fraser had two saves to make, the header from de Jong and the free-kick. But we didn’t play well within the game. We didn’t get hold of the ball, we didn’t pass it well enough and we didn’t create options for the man on the ball.”