Comment: Misfiring strikers leave Celtic short at front

It IS a dilemma that must cause Neil Lennon endless frustration. Despite the money and effort spent hunting down and then signing strikers in the summer, there is uncertainty surrounding who is best equipped to carry the burden of supplying the goals Celtic require to fuel their Champions League ambitions against AC Milan tomorrow night.

Teemu Pukki appears to be struggling to adapt to the demands of his teammates and the Scottish game. Picture: SNS
Teemu Pukki appears to be struggling to adapt to the demands of his teammates and the Scottish game. Picture: SNS

The Italians might be beset with their own worries at present, but you cannot rely on them conceding cheap goals. It means Celtic will need to make the most of those opportunities that come their way.

It’s not something that has proved to be a strong point for them this season in the Champions League group stage. A penalty and a deflected long range effort are all they have to show for their efforts in the “For” column so far – both coming in the absorbing 2-1 victory over Ajax that has provided Lennon’s side with a glimmer of hope of reaching the knockout stage.

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In order to progress, it is likely that they will need a notable contribution from a striker. But Lennon has been left scratching his head while dealing with dossiers marked with the names of Teemu Pukki and Amido Balde. Should they be filed next to the ones on which are written Lassad, Miku and Mo Bangura? It is too early to know for sure, but the Celtic manager is entitled to feel slightly let down by their failure to force him to think more seriously about including them in his side for tomorrow night’s fixture, when victory is paramount.

Lennon’s scouting network has been masterful in unearthing little-known players on the continent. At Celtic, they are offered a platform on which to parade their talents. Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk was no unknown in his homeland but you suspect that he will to benefit from the further exposure gained by playing for Celtic in the Champions League.

However, Van Dijk is not someone on whom Celtic can reasonably expect to provide a goal threat, although he is no slouch in the opposition box and helped set up the second goal in Saturday’s 3-1 victory over Aberdeen.

It is in attack where Celtic look worryingly short of options, despite the summer captures of Pukki and Balde. Both players were handed time on the pitch against Aberdeen on Saturday. For Pukki, who was named in the starting line-up, it was a disastrous example of someone playing himself out of contention. Balde could not be expected to outline what he can bring to the team in a 12-minute cameo at the end. In any case, he seems too raw to feature as anything other than a substitute in the Champions League at present (he is yet to make an appearance in the group stage).

For Pukki, it was a particularly dispiriting afternoon, sadly. The sight of the Finn almost sprinting from the park after 63 minutes when his number was displayed on the substitute board did little to convince anyone that he has the mettle or the confidence to flourish on such a high-octane occasion as tomorrow promises to be. Indeed, it was rather pitiful to observe.

Rather than settling into the team, Pukki appears to be struggling more and more to adapt to the demands of both his team-mates, and the Scottish game. He angered skipper Scott Brown on Saturday when giving the ball away. While he can look neat and tidy with his back to goal, he was signed to score, and help make up for the loss of Gary Hooper, who netted 31 times last season despite missing a portion of the campaign through injury.

Pukki has struck only twice and has not scored in his last 11 club appearances, although several of these have come from the bench.

There remains the hope that he might yet become the striker he clearly has been in the past. Mixu Paatelainen, his Finland international manager, is happy to continue employing him as his principal striker, and Lennon watched him perform in the international friendly with Wales at the Millennium stadium two weekends ago. He again drew a blank in a 0-0 draw but saw a shot hit the post after he wriggled his way through several Welsh defenders. He is clearly in need of a break in front of goal.

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Confidence appears to have drained from him, and his ungainly swipe at a chance just prior to his substitution on Saturday summed up his afternoon. It might have been preferable had he been the one left with the simple task of prodding Van Dijk’s saved header over the line on Saturday, to put Celtic 2-1 up. Instead it was Derk Boerrigter who was in the right place at the right time to side-foot the ball into an empty net for his first goal for the club.

Boerrigter’s performance on Saturday was certainly more heartening for Lennon. He looked much more like the player we were told to expect when he signed from Ajax in the summer, with a CV that included a goal in the Champions League against Real Madrid last season. Lennon could be tempted to include Boerrigter from the start tomorrow on the left flank, and move Georgios Samaras into a lone striking role, with support from James Forrest and Kris Commons.

But it isn’t just his new signings who Lennon might feel slightly let down by. Samaras and Commons were poor against Ajax in Amsterdam last month in a defeat that has left Celtic with no room for error against AC Milan.

Anthony Stokes, who was allowed to miss the win over Aberdeen in order to deal with a family issue, is back in contention to play tomorrow night, but his own recent goalscoring form does not bear much scrutiny. He has not scored in his last six appearances for Celtic, and only once in his last 12 outings for his club. He has not yet scored in the Champions League group stage.

The security provided by a new three-year contract might be the spur required. It is fair to suggest that he, too, owes Lennon some goals.

Tomorrow night would be a perfect time to repay the manager for the faith he has continued to show in the at-times wayward striker. While a return to striking form against mediocre league opposition has to remain his chief concern, a striker who plays for Celtic must be able to step up a level against the likes of Milan, even if the Italians are currently struggling to kick-start their season.

Following Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Genoa, Milan are only five points off the bottom of Serie A, and are one of only four sides who are yet to win an away game in the league all season. They have also not won either of their away Champions League appointments in Group H to date. However, Celtic will need to score, possibly more than once.

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It will pain Lennon that his extensive efforts to replace Hooper, who could so very easily have departed as long ago as January, have failed to unearth someone in whom supporters can have a reasonable amount of confidence if left one-on-one with opposition goalkeeper Christian Abbiati tomorrow night.

The manager made the point last week that he was concerned by the paltry return of only nine goals in the league at home this season, although that was improved by Saturday’s late show.

Lennon might feel unable to spell it out himself in today’s pre-match briefing. However, he is surely entitled to expect something special from those he selects in the forward area tomorrow, on a night when everything rests on victory.