ON THE surface, Celtic might have reason to feel more than a little anxious about their Champions League third qualifying round tie against Elfsborg on Wednesday night.
Celtic 1-2 B Moechengladbach
Scorers: Celtic - Stokes (75); B Moechengladbach - Xhaka (37), Hrgota (67)
Referee: C Thomson
What we learned from Saturday’s friendly defeat by Borussia Moenchengladbach – as much as you could anyway from a practice-match featuring a young, makeshift home side – is that two of Celtic’s three summer arrivals, Amido Balde and Steven Mouyokolo, have pressed no cases for inclusion. The third new signing, Virgil van Dijk, meanwhile, is injured.
Factor in, too, that the now departed Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper were among two of Celtic’s most accomplished performers in European football’s elite tournament last season. And add the possibility that half-hour run-outs on their return from injury against the Germans for Charlie Mulgrew and Joe Ledley might leave them short of fitness for the hosting of Elfsborg – the first true test in the qualifiers following their easing in to the campaign against Cliftonville. All of these elements combine to suggest a Celtic team on Wednesday night that could be some way shy of the strength of the team that marched into the last 16 of the tournament last year.
Yet, what might allow Lennon to sleep a little easier the next couple of nights is the relative strength of their Swedish opponents. On Saturday, he watched for himself as a team who seem to draw every other game these days drew 1-1 away to Atvidaberg. They now have only one win in their past six league games, and have drawn almost half of their matches in a faltering defence of a championship won nine months ago.
To put the assignment facing Celtic over the next ten days in context, Elfsborg are no Rennes. Lennon’s side required to face the French team at home in Europe two seasons ago with personnel issues. Anthony Stokes led the line, scored twice and Georgios Samaras excelled. Indeed, that evening was the beginning of the Greek’s renaissance. There was no Victor Wanyama that night, and Hooper appeared from the bench only for the final 12 minutes.
This midweek Celtic will be looking to rely on many of the same figures who served them well on that occasion. Attackers aplenty are being linked with the club, a spokesman for which denied they were targeting Sunderland’s James MClean and Porto winger Christian Astu, but a wildcard signing would surely not be pitched in in any case.
Not when, in Stokes, they have a striker who appears to relish the potential responsibility that could be thrust upon him. In the first 45 minutes, an experienced and bustling Borussia gave a young Celtic crop that contained the luckless Callum McGregor – who gave the ball away to allow Granit Xhaka to score the 37th minute opener that was always coming – a torrid time of it.
Their cause wasn’t helped by senior players simply going through the motions. Stokes, brought on after the interval, impressed because he played like the encounter meant something. He was bright and eager, and deserved his goal, a delicately-chipped free-kick a quarter of an hour from the end. It couldn’t rescue Celtic, by then 2-0 down after a crisp strike by substitute Branimir Hrgota, but it ensured the 15,000 or so who bothered turning up at least had some late intrigue.
The Irish striker said afterwards that he and others had to step up to compensate for the loss of Hooper, the club’s top scorer for the past three seasons and who netted 31 times last season. In purely Champions League terms, one other player has stepped up, with Samaras bagging seven goals in Europe in a year, a total that eclipses any other Celtic player.
“We’ve lost a great player and he was great lad around the club as well, but at a club like this it happens and we have to move on and other people have to take the burden and score goals,” Stokes said. “I always try and score as many as possible but we are all going to have to dig in and over the last three or four years we have done that.
“We have plenty of players who can score goals, even from midfield like Kris Commons who gets you 15 to 20 goals a season.”
One man who looks like he might struggle both when it comes to goals and getting to grips with his new career is Portuguese forward Balde. Nothing came off for the £1.9m signing from Vitória Guimarães at the weekend, with touch, timing and presence all having been little in evidence in his early outings for his new club.
Celtic coach Garry Parker, who took the team with both Lennon and assistant Johan Mjallby in Sweden, wasn’t for putting his iffy showing down to any understandable early teething troubles.
“It was hard for him because we very rarely had the ball, but he could have done better when it was played up to him,” Parker said. “It bounced off him a couple of times.
“That’s where you need to be stronger as a striker. When you have one up there like we had, you need someone to hold the ball up when you’re going through spells when you’ve not got it for very long. He needs to hold it better and bring others into play. With the size of him he should be capable of that.”