Neil Lennon’s new forward thinking will help Celtic says Scott Brown
Celtic may not know exactly what to expect when they are pitted against Cluj tomorrow. However, club captain Scott Brown believes that their prospects in this Champions League third-round qualifying first leg, and across this ninth-title chasing season, have been enhanced by the fact that, under Neil Lennon, the Scottish champions themselves are far less easy to read than they became under Brendan Rodgers.
Brown considers mixing up the approach was necessary to up a strike-rate that dwindled towards the end of their treble treble winning campaign. And Lennon’s stylistic tweaks certainly appear to be paying off in goals, with 21 banged in across only five competitive games this season; a tally helped no end by the 7-0 slaughtering of St Johnstone on Saturday.
Already in this campaign, Celtic have had no fewer than eight scorers – weekend hat-trick headline-making Ryan Christie leading the way with six strikes, but forwards Odsonne Eduoard, Leigh Griffiths and Mikey Johnston all chipping in with two apiece.
“[Last season] we relied a lot on Odsonne [Eduoard] to score our goals, although Scott Sinclair and James Forrest also chipped in,” Brown said. “It was all about the wingers and the lone striker, but now that Griff [Leigh Griffiths] is back and Bayo is also on the mend we have three strikers we can use and that helps us play in a more attacking formation.
“The gaffer likes us getting the ball into the penalty area nice and early and, to be fair, there’s no one better in the business to have there than Leigh and Odsonne.
“Everyone used to know that we’d play with two wide men, a lone striker and either one or two No 10s, but we’ve tried to chop and change so that we’re not one-dimensional all the time – not that I think we were before. A lot of other teams would try the low block against us and try to counter-attack us, but we had enough in defence to deal with most of them.
“That wasn’t the problem, though. The goals had just dried up, although we still managed to win the title and the Scottish Cup.
“Odsonne is still only 21, but he’s been brilliant for us and he’s also good in the dressing room. On the pitch he works at closing people down, his hold-up play is important and he’s a natural finisher as well. With Leigh available again and Ryan Christie making those runs in behind and creating space for others, that’s also helped him.”
Celtic were handed the most difficult route to the Champions League group stage in yesterday’s play-off draw, and now know that Slavia Prague lie in wait if they can see off the Romanian champions. It again highlights the difficulties inherent in requiring to negotiate eight European matches played over consecutive midweeks to earn a place in the competition’s group stages. That is why Brown believes success in doing so is akin to claiming domestic silverware – the club snapping up every one of the last nine trophies contested in their home front.
“It’s going to get harder and more difficult now,” Brown said of the fact that they head to Transylvania having already played FC Sarajevo and Nomme Kalju home and away in the past month.
“We’re expecting that. But we’re up for the challenge. The game on Wednesday will be huge for us.
“Getting to the Champions League is like winning a trophy for us. The manager calls it the fourth trophy of the season. Everyone knows how hard it is; you are up against top-quality sides in the qualifiers. It is what it is now. You see Ajax coming in and they almost won the Champions League last year. You have to beat whoever is in front of you and we’ve had to cope with the way the cards are dealt for 10 or 11 years now. Scotland’s seeding hasn’t been good enough.”