Andrew Smith: A Celtic result to drown out the siren voices aimed at Neil Lennon

AIK's Per Karlsson, left, and Celtic's Odsonne Edouard battle for the ball. Picture: Jonas Ekstromer/TT News Agency via AP
AIK's Per Karlsson, left, and Celtic's Odsonne Edouard battle for the ball. Picture: Jonas Ekstromer/TT News Agency via AP
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Siren voices threatened to become deafening when Celtic made a howling mess of their Champions League qualifying campaign.

The ship was well and truly going down under Neil Lennon on the back of the Scottish title holders leaking four goals at home to Cluj two weeks ago, it was said, and a Europa League play-off against AIK Stockholm had the potential to leave Celtic all at sea.

The ability, then, of Lennon’s team to reach the dry land of the group stage of the continent’s secondary cross-border competition by plotting a steady course in Sweden last night to claim a notable 4-1 away win – and therefore a 6-1 aggregate victory – is a success to salute.

The Champions League is where Celtic believe they belong. They do not because, in two consecutive seasons, they have failed to negotiate four qualifying rounds against more modestly resourced opposition.

It will still sting Celtic for a long time that they could not keep their shape to see off the Romanian champions in their own backyard. But the Parkhead side deserve credit for not letting this mini-crisis give way to further dicey drama. Across both legs against AIK, they never seriously looked like they would be troubled.

Indeed, with the titanic
first Old Firm game of the season away on Sunday to Rangers, who have legitimate title pretensions, the only concerns for Lennon last night came with the injury that forced off Kristoffer Ajer early on, and Odsonne Eduoard in the second half when the tie was won with Celtic leading 2-1, although that was later revealed to have been cramp.

Ajer is the club’s stand-out defender and were Lennon to be required to do without him at Ibrox, Steven Gerrard’s men would be licking their lips at the prospect of adding to two home derby triumphs last season aided by personnel issues that beset their bitter rivals.

Yet, what last night’s win might have shown was that, despite pundit Chris Sutton’s claims to the contrary, Celtic do have a degree of strength in depth, and aren’t wholly reliant on one or two players.

The back four which ended the encounter featured a third choice right-back in Anthony Ralston and a third choice centre-back in Nir Bitton. Maybe the circumstances of the occasion were advantageous, but both were more than competent.

In attack, meanwhile, the array of talents that Lennon has at his disposal once again came to the fore. Eduoard is unquestionably Celtic’s frontline kingpin, but James Forrest is an invaluable linchpin. His knack for scoring vital goals is becoming uncanny, with his sublime finish to claim an 11th goal in Europe – which places him in the top 10 in Celtic’s all-time list for continental scoring – ensuring that AIK found themselves deflated, behind and effectively out of the tie only 17 minutes into the second leg.

The 28-year-old winger has now netted in six of his last seven outings for the club. Fraser Forster might have been stretching it this week when he claimed Forrest was now regularly turning in world-class displays. It is difficult to dispute, though, that he has a world-class ability for producing match-changing moments when his team most need them.

He was ably backed up by Mikey Johnston, whose dancing feet helped put Celtic 2-1 in front only moments after they had been pegged back from the penalty spot.

The attacking menace of Ryan Christie was also on display, even if it didn’t yield a ninth goal off the season. Lennon said before the Europa League decider that he had a squad that needed to play on the front foot. In scoring in all eight of their European qualifiers now, and in every one of their 12 games this season at a rate of three goals per game, whatever Celtic’s defensive flaws, they do not want for compensations at the other end.