No longer can they point to an unblemished home league record, or say that, whatever their profound failings on the road, they can be trusted to produce within their own environs. In their current incarnation, Celtic are a team that can prove fragile whatever the circumstances - which must give the fear to their supporters with Bayer Leverkusen, presently second in the Bundesliga, coming to Glasgow’s east end on Thursday in the Europa League.
They will find Celtic at their lowest ebb so early in a campaign in two decades, with a home winning run that stood at seven games brought to a halt after it had offered respite for away misadventures that have resulted in six defeats from seven outings. Against a Tannadice side that were structured and composed, and trusting of their system, they seemed a mirror image. Their jitters, skittishness, allow Thomas Courts’ men to scent blood. As was evidenced in them striking back through an Ian Harkes header only three minutes after they had gone behind courtesy of Liel Abada breaking the deadlock by popping in a header of his own.
Of course, Celtic had opportunities to prevail. On the balance of them, they should have sealed full points. But despite David Turnbull, Tom Rogic and Jota all seeing efforts clatter off the goal frame - the latter two in the closing minutes of a scatty contest - while Albian Ajeti blazed over from two yards midway through the first period, there was always a sense that United would find a way to stand their ground.
The result leaves Celtic six points behind cinch Premiership leaders Rangers, in sixth place, one point and place behind the Tayside club. It means Postecoglou’s men have only one win in their past four league games, and have dropped an eye-watering 11 points out of a possible 21 in this championship. Last season under Neil Lennon, they took 25 points from a possible 27 before enduring a collapse from mid-October.
The debilitating injury problems that have beset Postecoglou have been endlessly documented and undoubtedly have offered a measure of justification for the slump threatening to sink Celtic’s title challenge rapidly. Yet, it should be remembered what the Australian said about having to do without crucial first-team quartet Callum McGregor, Kyogo Furuhashi, James Forrest and Greg Taylor. He said such difficulties also presented an opportunity. An opportunity to build resilience within the reduced squad with which he has been left. Instead, what appears to be becoming baked in to under-strength teams he is having no option but to field is brittleness.
That was exposed in Celtic’s inability to build a platform from taking the lead after trickery from Jota down the left led to him to whipping over a cross that Harkes missed to allow Abada to dink in a header that secured the Israeli a sixth goal of the season. Rarely has atonement come more quickly for a player than that enjoyed by the United midfielder, though. He provided a bullet from his bonce at waist height to beat Joe Hart after Ilmari Niskanen had outmuscled Anthony Ralston down the Celtic right touchline and hammered over a cross.
Celtic’s predicament could have become all the graver three minutes later when they seemed fortunate referee Kevin Clancy was unmoved by Cameron Carter-Vickers appearing to bundle Nicky Clark off the ball when the striker was bearing down on the Celtic keeper. The disjointed nature of Celtic meant that they couldn’t exhibit control despite dominating possession, and despite their wingers Jota and Abada providing regular menace as they sailed above the torpor afflicting their team-mates. In contrast, Turnbull and Rogic became bogged down through the middle with their linkage with sitter James McCarthy never appearing in sync. Josip Juranovic being lost to a hamstring pull approaching the half hour - to be replaced by Adam Montgomery - was one more drag back that Postecoglou could have done without. However, more problematic was Ismaila Soro replacing McCarthy, who had come in for some heavy treatment, following the interval. The Ivorian midfielder is a man that seems at war with himself and his own form, and it was painful to watch so little coming off for a player who has lost his way as he has lost the trust of his manager in recent weeks.
The huff and puff nature of Celtic as they became increasingly frantic across the closing stages while United, with conviction, sat in and looked for all the world as if they trusted themselves to repel what Celtic could throw at them, engendered a wave of exasperation round the Parkhead stands. It was toe-curling to see the Celtic players sheepishly make their way round a near-deserted stadium at the conclusion of yet another morale-sapping encounter. It felt as if they didn’t know where to turn. Emblematic of their entire afternoon, it is becoming increasingly emblematic of a season that is fraying at every edge. How Postecoglou can stitch his hope for the campaign back together isn’t apparent from all the available evidence of the past month.
Celtic: Hart; Ralston, Carter-Vickers, Starfelt, Juranovic (Montgomery 26); Rogic, McCarthy (Soro 46), Turnbull; Abada, Ajeti, Jota. Subs: Bain, Scales, Bitton, Welsh, Moffat.
Dundee United: Siegrist; McMann, Edwards, Smith, Freeman; Fuchs, Pawlett (Appere 78), Harkes; Niskanen (Sporle 61), Clark, Levitt. Subs: Carson, Reynolds, Chambers, Hoti, Mochrie.
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