Whatever Celtic’s deficiencies were on the night of their costly and calamitous Champions League exit in August, the potency of their attacking play was not among them.
“Dynamite” is the word Neil Lennon chooses to describe the performances of James Forrest, Odsonne Edouard and Ryan Christie, who all scored on that tumultuous evening against Cluj.
Sadly for the Celtic manager, too many other departments of his team pressed the self-destruct button to contribute to the 4-3 defeat which consigned the Scottish champions to a second successive failure to reach the group stage of Europe’s elite tournament.
As Celtic prepare to lock horns with Cluj again in the consolation territory of the Europa League tonight, Lennon is content there is now a far more rounded team under his command.
With summer defensive recruits Boli Bolingoli and Christopher Jullien more settled, Lennon has confidence there will be no repeat of the chaos at the back which undermined Celtic so badly against the Romanian champions last time out.
Lennon hopes the attacking triumvirate of Forrest, Edouard and Christie – who have a combined tally of 12 goals among them in European matches alone so far this season – can flourish again as Celtic look to overtake Cluj in the early Group E standings.
“They are a really good trio,” said Lennon. “James is more experienced and while Odsonne and Ryan are still quite young, they are all playing with a decent level of confidence.
“When they’re in full flow, they’re really difficult to stop. They were dynamite in the second half against Cluj that night but we missed a trick in the first half because we didn’t get the ball forward quickly enough and we didn’t get it into the right areas. Looking back, we were capable of beating Cluj over the two games even at that stage of the season. But there has been a marked improvement in our performances and our cohesion, our shape and fluidity – all those fancy words that you like to use – since then. We look more assured and I’m looking for more of the same on Thursday night.
“Maybe Cluj will expect us to come at them and we have to make them defend. Allied to those three players in attack, there’s the likes of Chris Jullien, Boli Bolingoli, Kris Ajer, Scott Brown and Callum McGregor giving us a great platform.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Cluj defeat seven weeks ago, Lennon described the reaction to it from some sections of both the media and the Celtic support as bordering on hysteria.
He has retained a serenity of his own ever since as Celtic have made an unbeaten start to their Premiership title defence, reached the semi-finals of the Betfred Cup and opened their Europa League group stage campaign with an impressive 1-1 draw away to Rennes. But he sees no need to claim any vindication on his own behalf.
“I don’t really look at it negatively or positively in that sense,” added Lennon. “You just have to put a perspective on it (the Cluj defeat) and look at what you’ve got in front of you.
“Gradually, we’re improving. It’s been steady and really good progress since then, so I’ve been delighted with the reaction. Cluj are a good side and that’s been underestimated. They ran Slavia Prague close in the Champions League play-off round after beating us and they’ve then beaten Lazio, who are the top seeds in our Europa League group, in the first round of games.
“They play an effective style of football. They don’t play through teams that much. They hit a lot of diagonals and put the ball in the box. They’ve got good energy and a good spirit about them, too. I expect the game to be played at a fast tempo.
“I hope they expect the Celtic who turned up in the first half last time, not the second half. In the second half, we scored three goals and I don’t see many clubs getting three against Cluj in 45 minutes. It showed me what we were capable of but we let the first 45 minutes drift away from us. We were passive and we can’t be like that in Europe. So we want to start as strongly as we can and get the decibel levels at Celtic Park up, because the players can really react to that.”
Lennon is making no bold predictions about how far Celtic could progress in the Europa League this season but is in no doubt as to how significant the tournament is for them.
“European football is really important in that it gives you that bit of gravitas as a club,” he added. “I don’t know what the expectations are for this season, but I would like us to be able to be strong enough to compete for qualification from the group.
“We’re not looking too far ahead but it’s a group we feel capable of competing in and, maybe, prevailing from it.
“It’s high quality, high tempo and concentrated games of football. It’s great to have it. I really enjoyed the Rennes game and the performance and I’m really looking forward to this game.”