As the Celtic manager passed through the gates, few of the maintenance men recoiling cables and packing away scaffold equipment could look him in the eye. The snatched glances given were of those feeling sheepish at watching a condemned man walk to his fate.
Lennon should not be placed in that category, but the vicious on-line reaction from a growing body of Celtic supporters in the aftermath of a latest outfoxing by the Ibrox men sought to place him there. Now, we know cyberspace is an unreliable barometer at all times. Yet, even allowing for that, the erosion of faith in his abilities is palpable among the club’s faithful. They have digested – or given themselves indigestion in chewing over – a third straight derby wherein Celtic have not been able to counter the coached, cohesive unit against which they have been ranged. In contrast, they have appeared disjointed, disorganised and desultory in all compartments. As much as Steven Gerrard’s wiles, it has appeared his backroom team’s tactical brain Michael Beale has Lennon’s number.
As a consequence, the week ahead is huge for Lennon. If Celtic were to be seriously turned over by AC Milan on Thursday and then fail to win at Pittodrie three days later, the bonds between the Celtic manager and his support could be frayed to breaking point. The hum of the 10-in-a-row quest is threatening to become a screech. And, in truth, it isn’t easy to see how Lennon changes the soundtrack in the short-term.
It might be wondered as to how Celtic can appear so stiff and unimaginative now – and they largely have been so across the opening months of this campaign, while squeezing out wins – when they were so electric in eviscerating opponents in the months before the lockdown. Especially when they have bolstered the squad with some promising signings without losing any key personnel. The answer, though, is straightforward. Of the XI that started as Celtic blew away St Mirren 5-0, to ensure they continued to motor along at an average of three goals a game across 14 domestic encounters of 2020, only three – Scott Brown, Callum McGregor and Kristoffer Ajer – started yesterday.
The Covid-19 casualties missing yesterday, in the form of Odsonne Edouard, Ryan Christie, Nir Bitton and Hatem Elhamed, would all have improved Celtic against Rangers. Likewise, injured pair James Forrest and Christopher Jullien. Add to that the fact Leigh Griffiths and Albian Ajeti were deemed not fit enough to make more than relatively brief appearances, and selection issues certainly ate into Celtic’s competitiveness. It left Lennon, effectively, requiring to operate with his fourth choice striker in Patryk Klimala, and his sixth-choice centre-back in youngster Stephen Welsh. Neither of whom were the principal reasons Celtic proved bereft of fluency or solidity. There is a system failure not entirely related to the 3-5-2 system to which Lennon is adhering. It appears to be sucking the life from his side.
Celtic’s squad overhaul, and the malfunctioning of its components as line-ups are forced to be chopped and changed, is leaving the team looking less, much less, than the sum of its parts. It has created the sense of a side falteringly setting out at the start of its journey, when the Celtic team should have the means to be smoothly negotiating its 10th lap … on the back of an unparalleled 11th straight domestic trophies. How Lennon fast-tracks a host of players to overcome the profound issues laid bare by a quietly effective Rangers is not immediately apparent.
Relentless schedule and proving doubters wrong
The schedule of a game every three and four days between now and Christmas – and beyond – won’t allow for Celtic to be re-tuned on the training pitch. They will have to play themselves into form, somehow. That is dastardly difficult when you have a raft of new players such as Diego Laxalt, Shane Duffy, Vasilis Barkas and Ajeti that will require to fit into a team that has no solid framework.
With Lennon stating that Edouard has had cardiac and blood tests following his positive Covid-19 test two weeks ago, and that he won’t be considered for Milan because his health must come first, no time soon will Celtic be headed up by the player integral to elevating their performances over the past 18 months. No matter than the Frenchman has looked a shadow of himself for much of this campaign. Equally, he cannot magic Griffiths and Ajeti into a state of conditioning that would allow for these two natural goalscorers to contribute in a fashion that would compensate for the club’s stricken foremost game changer.
Lennon must find a way to overcome problems that seem to be springing up for him all over the pitch. Few Celtic supporters believe he has it in him to do that. Yet, when he failed to oversee the club closing out the championship in 2010-11, the same sorts dismissed that he would ever be a successful manager. Likewise, when he had to steer Celtic to a treble treble that these masses decreed non-negotiable following Brendan Rodgers’ flit to Leicester City in February 2019.
On both occasions, he ultimately forced his doubters to choke on their casual dismissals of his abilities. He has a monstrous job on his hands to do that yet again.