AS IS often the case, the perception of Celtic’s defensively unconvincing start to this season is different from the reality.
When Craig Gordon and his defenders allowed Lasse Schone’s free-kick to sail directly into the net from a wide position in Amsterdam on Thursday night, it was viewed by many as the continuation of a damaging trend.
But while it is true that conceding goals from set pieces has proved costly for Ronny Deila’s side in recent weeks – most notably in the Champions League play-off round tie against Malmö and then last weekend’s 2-1 loss to Aberdeen in the Premiership – their overall defensive form is no worse than it was 12 months ago.
Celtic have played 14 games in the current campaign so far, conceding 15 goals and keeping just five clean sheets.
After the same number of matches last season, they had also conceded 15 goals while keeping only four clean sheets.
So while assistant manager John Collins admits improvement is required from Celtic’s back four, he insists it is not an issue causing particular concern to the coaching staff.
“Worry isn’t the word to use,” said Collins as he reflected on the similarity between Schone’s late equaliser in the 2-2 Europa League draw against Ajax and Paul Quinn’s winner for Aberdeen at Pittodrie.
“Obviously we’re disappointed but it was a great ball from Schone and very difficult to defend, whipped into a dangerous area. Just the slightest touch and it goes in, but obviously we could have pushed out a little bit more.
“Again, you have to give the opposition credit for the good delivery but we’ve also scored lots of goals from set pieces. That’s been our strength. Last season, we hardly conceded any from set pieces and every team goes through these periods when you concede goals. We don’t like it and we work on it on the training ground, but we’re doing nothing different from last season in our set-up.”
With a new-look defence bedding in, recent signing Jozo Simunovic joining Dedryck Boyata in the centre of the back four following the departure of Virgil van Dijk to Southampton, the key factor for Collins is to try to get everyone in the rearguard on the same wavelength. “That’s exactly what it is about – communication,” he added. “Don’t wait on the ball. You’ve got to go and meet the ball in that danger area. You’ve got to go and head it.
“It’s a combination of things. As I say, you have to give the opposition credit for good deliveries but we can definitely defend better and that’s our objective – to stop the crosses coming in and, when they do come in, to defend them better.”
Celtic will seek to avoid a ninth successive match without a clean sheet this afternoon when they welcome Dundee to Glasgow.
Starting the day five points behind Aberdeen adds extra pressure to the contest for Celtic but Collins believes that can prove beneficial to the champions.
“I think it’s good for Celtic and good for Scottish football,” he said. “It brings an edge to it, definitely.
“If you look at last year, we were sitting behind Aberdeen for a large part of the season. We were games behind them and points behind them. So we’ve got experience of that.”
Collins is also confident Celtic can handle the additional demands of their Europa League campaign without losing any further ground on their rivals from Pittodrie.
“Last year we coped with that very well, so we’ve got some experience of it,” he added. “I’m sure it will be no problem. We’ve got a good squad and when we have to rest players then we will rest them.”
Among those whose appearances will be rationed is Mikael Lustig. The Swedish right-back is a key man for Celtic but continues to struggle to complete 90 minutes of action due to the lingering effects of the ankle injury which sidelined him for much of last season.
“We’ve rushed him back because he’s such an important player for us,” said Collins. “He’s not had enough training probably, so it’s getting the balance right between training and games.
“We need him on the pitch – he’s a leader, a talker and as every week goes by his fitness is getting better and hopefully he’ll be lasting 90 minutes soon.
“He’s not had a real run of weeks of training because of his injury setback. He’s ready to play a game but not 90 minutes, so we have a choice. Do we play him for 60 or 70 minutes? Hopefully it will gradually go up.
“We’ll see whether it’s a Europa League game, then a rest, then a Europa League game, but hopefully we’ll build it up so he can do two games a week.”