Andrew Smith: Simunovic risk not worth taking

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Any defensive formation fielded by Ronny Deila last night would have appeared a gamble – the fragility of the Celtic backline in continental competition could make it no other way. Yet, the selection of Jozo Simunovic proved a risk not worth taking.

It was understandable that Deila wanted his £4.5 million Croatian on the pitch. That made complete sense as the accomplished 21-year-old centre-back has exuded authority in his handful of outings. He is a communicator and organiser, facets all too sadly lacking in so many of those entrusted with defensive roles for Deila’s men.

Jozo Simunovic lasted only four minutes before succumbing to an ankle injury and he was sorely missed by the Celtic defence. Picture: SNS Group

Jozo Simunovic lasted only four minutes before succumbing to an ankle injury and he was sorely missed by the Celtic defence. Picture: SNS Group

However, an ankle knock sustained in the victory over Aberdeen on Saturday had left Simunovic as “50-50” for what was effectively a must-win mission against Molde. In truth, the tenor of the Celtic manager’s comments pre-match suggested there was no way he would be fit enough to take part last night.

There he was, though, at kick-off. There he went, though, within four minutes, after a horrible clatter from Tom Hoiland left him writhing in agony, clutching his ankle. He hirpled off the field, almost as disconsolately as a home support who had already marked him down as the single centre-back at the club they are entitled to place any store in.

It took another three minutes for his replacement to enter the fray. The home crowd appeared intrigued, and probably a little relieved, that it was not Efe Ambrose that took his place but 20-year-old Manchester United loanee Tyler Blackett. The relief was misplaced. What followed was some of the most shambolic defending witnessed on the European stage from a Celtic team since they deathly 1990s.

It must be said that last night provided a dogged European debut by 18-year-old left-back Kieran Tierney. On the other flank, captain for the evening Mikael Lustig battled away. In the heart of the backline, though, deprived of Simunovic it seemed a case, some wise-cracker suggested, of no Jozo only bozos. Indeed, as Deila’s side shipped in their obligatory two goals to make it 13 conceded in six European games, there was a genuinely comedic element to some of their mishaps. All that was missing were the buckets of water and custard pies.

If these two slapstick staples had been present, Blackett would have taken foam full in the face and been left drookit. The poor soul was a walking pratfall… if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. The youngster, himself, certainly was, as the defender who simply couldn’t defend.

Inside his first ten minutes on the park, he lost his man to let him in on goal, played passes straight to opponents, and gave away cheap fouls. He looked a bag of nerves. All this before he was guilty of a slack clearing header that was a gift for Mohamed Elyounoussi, who had all the time he required to chest down and hook the ball high into net. Matters turned worse for Blackett when he allowed the 40-year-old Daniel Hestad to get in front of him and force in a cross.

When Blackett the substitute was subbed for Nadir Ciftci early in the second period his anger at what footballers perceive as humiliating treatment led to him refusing the handshake of Deila. Still, it wasn’t any better without Blackett, the youngster can comfort himself. Nir Bitton, pressed into action alongside Boyata, was soon taking the same, pained walk courtesy of the his bundling over Ola Kamara. Bitton, as the only man between Kamara and Craig Gordon had to see red... which ought to be the colour of Deila’s complexion at presiding over such a laughably inept display.

The Celtic manager cannot keep blaming individual errors, or poor individual performances, for the fact that his side are without a win in their past nine Europa League encounters. With 37 goals conceded in his 24 European ties there is clearly a systematic failure that Deila, like his side, can provide no defence for.

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