Celtic soft and shapeless as repeat Sparta Prague horror show pushes Neil Lennon deeper down a hole

The pleas in mitigation for, and from Neil Lennon, can only wear ever thinner following a truly miserable end of their Europa League qualification hopes in Prague.

Celtic's scorer Odsonne Edouard , one of the few bright sport in the grim 4-1 defeat in Prague, is challenged by Sparta defender Dominik Plechaty (Photo by Michal Cizek / AFP) (Photo by MICHAL CIZEK/AFP via Getty Images)

Whatever the Czech is for ‘can we play you every week’, it could have been belted out from the home dressing room at the conclusion of their second 4-1 filleting of the Scottish champions in three weeks.

Sparta Prague are a team that had conceded seven goals in their previous two games, and have now only beaten Celtic in their past five outings. At the minute, though, any opponent looks capable of skewering Lennon’s side. It can be no other way when they are as shapeless as a squiggle and as soft as a blancmange. The consequence of having won only two of their past nine games and shipping an eye-watering 20 goals in the process. Such bloodletting can only drain the life from Lennon’s 21-month second tenure. Frankly, it feels like the Celtic manager is being covered in ever-more leeches with every successive performance.

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Even in taking a 14th minute lead in Prague, and pinning the home team back for most of the second period in facing a 2-1 deficit following a first half collapse, Celtic still contrived to be utterly second best. They cannot do right for wrong, and their wrongs are monumental, a third loss in four Group H encounters also their first away defeat in the calendar year of 2020.

The growing fraternity among the Celtic support demanding the removal of Lennon - which will have been swelled considerably by the latest on-field debacle - have sought to claim his two decades’ service for the club shouldn’t be a mitigating factor when even ultimate playing figurehead Billy McNeill could be jettisoned from the club’s management position.

It is a ridiculous parallel in light of the fact the Lisbon Lions captain endured two years of desperate results rather than two months dragging the Northern Irishman into an ever-deepening hole.

Yet, one uncomfortable similarity was brought to mind by the shambolic defending that allowed Sparta to claim, incredibly, their second four-goal haul against the Scottish champions. As McNeill proved unable to come up with the answers to poor results while he chopped and changed his personnel, he memorably quipped: “I kept shuffling the pack but I couldn’t find any aces”.

It feels as if Lennon is being confounded in such terms. The return of centre-back Christopher Jullien in Prague following a back problem that had sidelined him for 10 weeks and 14 games was supposed to stiffen up a defence that has been a sieve. Likewise, with Hatem Abd Elhamed replacing Jeremie Frimpong at right-back. The two goals conceded in that first half, though, were as egregious as any gifted to opponents in an horrendous nine-game sequence that has turned the club upside down and in on itself.

In fairness to Jullien, it was his strong header out of the box that paved the way for Mohamed Elyounoussi to feed Odsonne Edouard for the opener.

Following the dazzling 14th minute finish from the striker who was another returning performer - which resulted from him twisting David Hancko one way then the other down the left of the penalty area before lashing the ball in off the far post - Jullien’s night, and that of his team turned disastrous.

The Sparta equaliser was the product of hideous defending from corner. It was the fifth goal Celtic have coughed up from such a dead ball this season, and the eighth from a set-piece in total. An attempt by Jullien to head it clear was insipid and led to it dropping at the edge of the box where Scott Brown was beaten in a challenge by David Pavelka. His prod through found Callum McGregor playing on three Sparta players that had no green jerseys in their vicinity, Hancko turning the ball in from close range.

Their second goal in the 39th minute was even more darkly comical in some respects, a simple low angled ball from deep on the left was missed by both Krisoffer Ajer and Jullien. The French defender seemed unaware that Lukas Julius - Celtic’s destroyer last time with a hat-trick at Parkhead - was darting in behind him. And despite throwing himself to block at the near post, the striker was able to force the ball over the line in straightforward fashion.

Celtic regrouped following a period that ended with a free header passed up by Ladislav Krejci, who thumped against the upright from only four yards. However, their territorial dominance yielded few clear-cut opportunities, apart from the otherwise bright Edouard missing a pinch. Instead, it was their vulnerabilities that came back to haunt them when Elhamed got in on the hapless act by falling to deal with a run from David Mollberg-Karlsson, thereby allowing him to whip over a ball from the right that Julius - who else? - first-timed past Scott Bain. The 92nd minute fourth was merely further salts being poured into the Celtic wounds, Srđan Plavšić breaking clear down the middle and rounding the Celtic keeper after he had raced to the edge of his area before slotting in.

Sparta Prague: Nita, Plechaty, Pavelka, Hancko, Vindheim, Travnik (Krejci 76), Dockal, Krejci, Hanousek (Soucek 66), Julis (Minchev 86), Moberg-Karlsson. Subs: Heca, Soucek, Lischka, Plavsic, Wiesner, Vitik, Gabriel, Gelashvili, Patrak.

Celtic: Bain; Elhamed, Ajer, Jullien, Laxalt; Brown (Rogic 66), McGregor, Christie, Ntcham, Elyounoussi, Edouard (Klimala 82). Subs: Barkas, Taylor, Duffy, Bitton, Ajeti, Frimpong, Henderson.

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