PETER Lawwell knows from bitter experience that Celtic fans are not long in turning a pedestal into a gallows.
In a time of chaos and chancers elsewhere, Lawwell has won praise for the way he has done his business, the finances of the club never better, the feelgood factor during last season’s wonderful run in the Champions League as high as it had been for years. On Wednesday night, of course, that might all change. Instead of rose petals, the chief executive might find something altogether more unsavoury being thrown in his direction if Neil Lennon’s team don’t find a way of engineering a special night. Depending on the outcome of the second leg against Shakhter Karagandy, Lawwell is either going to receive more plaudits on Thursday morning – or a hanging party.
Already there is protest. He has been a miser in the transfer market. He has put Celtic’s Champions League dream in jeopardy because of his refusal to spend. He has all the money from last season plus fortunes more from the sales of Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and Kelvin Wilson and he’s only released a fraction of it for new recruits. Where’s Hooper’s replacement? Where is the new Wanyama? Get your chequebook out, Lawwell. Boooo!
The tie is not dead, far from it. Karagandy’s weaknesses are obvious, but so, too, was Celtic’s inability to exploit them. Last season, they’d have found a way, but this Celtic team is not the same. It doesn’t have the same clinical finishing up front, doesn’t have the stability at the back – an epidemic of ball-watching broke out last Tuesday – and doesn’t have the fantastic buffer in midfield that was Wanyama. They are a side in transition and, although they are up against no great shakes on Wednesday, the fact is that they’re no great shakes themselves, certainly not on the evidence we have seen so far this season. They will improve, but can it be done in time?
Karagandy’s 2-0 victory was a shock, but Celtic, of all clubs, should know about the Champions League’s capacity for the bizarre, given they wrote the book on it last season. When Hooper darted away to put his team 1-0 ahead in the final game of the thrilling pool stage, against Spartak Moscow at Celtic Park, he was merely carrying on a freakish pattern of behaviour that eventually brought Lennon’s team into the last 16 against all odds.
Hooper’s goal was Celtic’s eighth in the group. What was remarkable about it was that it was their eighth goal from only 23 attempts on target, a conversion rate that was better than any other side in the competition at the time, including Bayern Munich. In the two games with Barcelona, Celtic averaged 27 per cent possession and had nine attempts on goal compared to Barca’s 50, had six on target as opposed to 27 and three corners to 22. And yet, after 180 minutes, they were level on goals at 3-3. At Celtic Park, Barca made 955 passes to Celtic’s 166. Xavi passed it 166 times, with Kris Commons the most prolific passer for the home team with a mere 22. Across both legs, Celtic scored from 50 per cent of their attempts on target. Had Barca been as clinical, they would have got 13 goals in the two matches.
All this shows that crazy things happen and a crazy thing happened in Kazakhstan on Tuesday. Shakhter Karagandy made the most of the frailties in the Celtic defence and Celtic couldn’t do the same against the obvious weakness at the other end, particularly in goal. Shakhter had some of the organisation and the commitment and the good fortune and the ruthlessness that Celtic had a year ago, while Lennon’s team were vulnerable at the back and wasteful up front. Celtic never gave a sucker an even break in the Champions League last season and Shakhter were the same last week.
To those Celtic people who are confident that Shakhter’s deficiencies will be exploited on Wednesday night, we can offer up the memory of Barcelona fans who thought precisely the same thing after they were made to work until the dying minutes in Spain for their win. Many of them thought that Celtic could not hope to hold back the tide in Glasgow as they had in Barcelona. We all know what happened.
“I thought we did more than enough to get something out of last week’s tie,” Lennon told the press during his usual Friday briefing. “We didn’t and we’ve left it much, much harder than we should have done. But it’s not insurmountable. I think it’s retrievable. We need it. We want it. The players are angry with themselves, they’re frustrated and I think that’s a good sign. We can’t wait.”
The problem for Celtic is that, although they are up against a team that got lucky last week, they have hardly shown the kind of form this season that suggests they are capable of doing what needs to be done on Wednesday. No matter what combination they put together at centre-half, it’s going to be fretful. Virgil van Dijk will surely start, probably alongside Efe Ambrose, but neither have looked at all convincing. Kelvin Wilson has been a grievous loss.
“His [Wilson’s] desire to go meant it would have been difficult to keep him,” said Lennon, of the possibility of stalling the defender’s move to Nottingham Forest until the Shakhter games were out of the way. “It’s disappointing, as we could have done with him. We haven’t got that real pace, but the two centre-halves are decent and we’ve Efe to come in if I choose to use him for his pace at the back.
“Kelvin going was one we didn’t envisage. I really brought Virgil in to play alongside him, so to lose Kelvin was obviously a blow.
“Whoever I played on Tuesday was going to be a new partnership anyway, whether it be Virgil and Efe, Efe and Steven [Mouyokolo] or Steven and Virgil. I went with the two big ones because of the extra height.
“Now, in essence, the only criticism we had of them was they were too far apart when we were attacking. We thought they were too deep, but, looking at the game again, they were too far apart. You get that now and again with new partnerships. I thought they weren’t the main problem for me on Tuesday. I just felt going forward we lacked conviction in our finishing.”
Karagandy are organised, but they are not subtle. It’s one thing knowing that they will play 5-4-1 and another thing having the wit to break them down a minimum of three times.
Lennon added: “We watched them against BATE in both games and they had a lot of luck and I felt they had plenty of luck against us as well. People say you make your own luck, which is fine, but you have to analyse the game and I thought we were the better team. They’re physical, worked very hard out of possession and got the breaks at the right time. There wasn’t a lot for me to really fear.”
Physical, hard-working, lucky. Passionate crowd. Better team lost. These are the things that Barca people said about Celtic last year after the Parkhead game. Celtic may be better than Karagandy, but that’s not going to come as any comfort on Wednesday night if they are dumped out of the Champions League.
“No matter who we played, going out at this stage would be a head-wrecker,” said Lennon. It’s only August and yet the biggest game Celtic will play this season is almost upon them.