CELTIC may have fallen agonisingly short of claiming a point in the San Siro on Wednesday night.
But that did not prevent the players that Neil Lennon has long had at his disposal making a salient point in their Champions League opening-night loss to AC Milan.
The accepted wisdom was that there would be a diminution in the effectiveness of Celtic at this level in the event of Lennon being basically required to run with last season’s squad minus summer departees Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and Kelvin Wilson. Indeed, the club’s struggles to overcome Shakhter Karagandy in the final qualifying round were attributed to precisely to such a weakening of his options.
Yet, despite the fact that centre-back Virgil van Dijk was the only close-season capture to feature in the starting line-up against Milan, Celtic proved to be as assured and as adept as they had in any fixture on the road in Europe last season, even in conceding two unfortunate goals in the closing eight minutes to lose 2-0.
Inescapably, the profound limitations of Massimiliano Allegri’s side – made all the more acute by the loss to injury of captain and playmaker Riccardo Montolivo, full-backs Ignazio Abate and Mattia De Sciglio and attackers Kaka and Stephan El Shaarawy – must be factored into any explanation as to why Celtic were able to outplay such illustrious hosts for long spells.
Even at full strength, this current Milan team could boast little of the wiles or wit that underpinned their past ability to consistently succeed in football’s top club competition. However, it is a kick inside that principally accounts for Celtic’s ability to continue to progress in the wake of cashing in on prized assets Wanyama and Hooper. Players such as Scott Brown, Charlie Mulgrew, Adam Matthews and Anthony Stokes presented compelling evidence that they are capable of kicking on to ensure Celtic remain competitive in a domain that really ought to be beyond the club’s modest means.
Especially captain Brown. With the aide of Mulgrew, he ensured Celtic bossed the middle of the park in the San Siro. Where once his passing, positioning, pounding around and passions were all facets to flail him over, now they are facets making the 28-year-old a more formidable presence than it was once considered he ever could be.
His manager delights in a remarkable transformation, hardly coincidental with the player seeming to have got on top of hip and ankle problems that have proved so debilitating in the recent past and which limited his contribution to the club’s last-16 exploits. “Broonie’s just in the form of his life at the minute,” Lennon said. “He’s really matured. His all-round game technically is getting better. He’s reading the game so well. His technical discipline is a lot better, but that just comes with experience. He was the best midfielder on the pitch, by a long way. A long way.
“He’s injury-free and he’s also got great natural cardio capacity, but his football now’s a lot better. He always covered the ground well, but he’s passing, he’s taking the ball and manipulating it under pressure as well. He was probably disappointed not to score. The guy just got a touch on the shot. He’s made a great run, a great pass. I thought he was one of the best players on the pitch tonight.”
And it has not required Lennon to provide personal midfield masterclasses for Brown to better himself. “No. It’s just natural,” the manager said. “You keep coaxing him. He sees the game. He’s an intelligent footballer, which he probably wasn’t branded with early on in his career because he was a little bit hot-headed, but he has all the attributes now to be, and he is, a top midfield player.”
Mulgrew, Brown’s partner on Wednesday as he was in the recent encouraging Scotland performances, exhibited the grace under pressure and smart distribution that made him a fine foil for his captain in the absence of the injured Joe Ledley. “They dovetail quite well,” Lennon said.
“There’s a good balance there. I think we missed Joe a little bit in the second half, when the game started to get stretched. We could have done with a bit more legs in there but, overall, I was really pleased with the two of them. They’re brave. Charlie gets the ball down through all the hurly-burly, shows great composure, picks his passes well and gets around the pitch.”
Matthews, labelled “outstanding” by his manager, was berthed in the wide right of midfield to leave no role for £2million Dutch winger Derk Boerrigter. Lennon acknowledged that the one downside of his team’s display was “poor” crossing.
James Forrest, were he not currently stricken, could have supplied better and that weakness did restrict the opportunities for Stokes to make an impression in his first appearance in the Champions League.
Lennon insisted it didn’t require deep thought to invest such a huge vote of confidence in the Dubliner, who it was thought might have to give way to £3 million summer arrival Teemu Pukki. And he offered Stokes another massive confidence booster by suggesting he could more than merely fill the void left by Hooper.
“It was an easy decision to make [to select him],” said Lennon. “He’s playing well. He looked a wee bit edgy to start with but once the team grew into the game, he grew into the game as well. I was really pleased. He gives a lot of options, more so than maybe even Hoops did at times.”
It remains to be seen if self-improvement within the Celtic squad could allow Stokes to eclipse Hooper or Brown to ensure that there is no pining for Wanyama. But the very fact that this is up for discussion is progress in itself.