For Saturday’s trip to Fir Park – a ground Celtic hadn’t won at in their three previous visits – Neil Lennon felt able to start without his two main goal threats in this fledgling campaign: Ryan Christie and Odsonne Edouard.
Even allowing for the driven start produced by a Stephen Robinson side that warranted their holding a lead for longer than the two minutes it took for the marauding right-back Kristoffer Ajer to cancel out Liam Donnelly’s 12th-minute opener, any squad rotation undertaken by Lennon ahead of tomorrow’s deciding Champions League third-round qualifier at home to Cluj ultimately never looked like it would prove destabilising.
Christie and Edouard may have appeared in the latter stages to bolster the goal difference in helping the Scottish champions run out 5-2 winners, but a victory to back up their opening day 7-0 filleting of St Johnstone was never in doubt from the moment Leigh Griffiths, with an unusual – as he himself termed it – “daisycutter” free-kick, made it 2-1 for the visitors just at the close of the first half.
It is a curious business trying to read Celtic at present. They require to recruit well in what remains of the transfer window as at present they may not have enough to prevail against Slavia Prague in the Champions League play-off round – should they account for the Romania champions, with whom they fought out a 1-1 draw in Transylvania last week.
With Kieran Tierney’s £25 mil- lion move to Arsenal following the departures of other influential players Mikael Lustig, Dedryck Boyata and Moussa Dembele in the space of 12 months – as well as a host of fringe performers – their squad would appear significantly weaker than exactly one year ago. Yet, on the pitch, they seem far more effective than when under an increasingly frustrated Brendan Rodgers in August 2019 – a month during which they couldn’t make it to the Champions League play-offs and only scored five goals in four league games.
How Lennon appears to have derived more from less might in no small part be related to the fact his public pronouncement about not having a first choice XI but up to 20 players he feels able to select without a diminution of the team’s quality is being shared in the dressing room.
It has certainly perked up such as Lewis Morgan, one of the surprise beneficiaries of Lennon’s open-door policy for fringe players and who has twice in the past week been preferred to Scott Sinclair while Mikey Johnston has not been risked while nursing a tight hamstring.
Lennon lauded the work rate of the former St Mirren winger. He certainly appears to have emboldened him to believe he can contribute. For the 22-year-old, the confidence building from the top has been universal.
“He [Lennon] has said before he trusts all of us. We have competition all over the pitch and everyone’s being kept on their toes. He made four changes [from Cluj], but it was four class players replacing four class players,” said Morgan, referring to the fact that the suspended Jozo Simunovic, injured Hatem Abd Elhamed and Edouard and Christie were replaced by Christopher Jullien, Nir Bitton, Olivier Ntcham and Griffiths.
“Some boys were given a much-needed rest but he trusted the players he brought in and that’s 12 goals in our first two league games. We’re obviously doing something right and the manager’s got us playing good attacking football.”
Rangers believe, and are demonstrating, they have strength in depth with Alfredo Morelos able to come off the bench and score twice in the 6-1 win over Hibs yesterday once Jermain Defoe had bagged a hat-trick.
Moreover, while Celtic have already had ten players finding the net in a season that has yielded 25 goals in only seven games, Steven Gerrard’s side have hardly proved slouches in that department with their scoring spread between eight players.
How much each club squeezes from players beyond their pivotal performers could prove decisive – and with such as the returning-from-injury Tom Rogic and the returning-from-the-huff Ntcham a duo of a stature that Rangers do not possess in reserve, Celtic retain an advantage.
Their disadvantage is quickly being presented as effective Tierney replacement Boli Bolingoli. Lazily, he is being presented as doing no right but Lewis begs to differ.
“He has something to offer, of course he has. He is adapting to a new league but he is talented, we see it every day in training, and he works hard for the team. We all trust him.”