Why Celtic need not be lost in Lille despite recent troubles

Celtic’s need for result therapy is patently obvious.

Celtic manager Neil Lennon will instruct his captain Scott Brown to help plug gaps in the club's leaky defence against Lille (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)
Celtic manager Neil Lennon will instruct his captain Scott Brown to help plug gaps in the club's leaky defence against Lille (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

A trip to face a Lille team currently tucked behind Paris-Saint Germain only on goal difference at the summit of the French league would hardly seem what the doctor would order. Yet, following a three-game winless run ludicrously being treated as cataclysmic for Neil Lennon’s men, a Europa League away encounter could - could - just be the required medicine.

In terms of wins on the road in continental competition as a Celtic manager, Lennon keeps rarefied company. Across his two spells at the helm, he has won ten such encounters. Only the great Jock Stein, with 13, has more. Of course, almost all of Lennon’s successes have come in either qualifiers or the secondary setting of the Europa League. In part that explains why, despite leading Celtic to back-to-back appearances in the last 16 of the Champions League in the late 2000s, Gordon Strachan did not post a single away win in Europe across four seasons at the helm.

Yet as they seek to end a sequence wherein they lost a closing-seconds equaliser at Aberdeen on Sunday following defeats to AC Milan and Rangers, more pertinent is the showings in Europe since Lennon returned for a second Celtic stint 20 months ago. The Glasgow club have played ten European away games in that time. They have lost only one of them – a dead-rubber in Cluj last December when Lennon rested a clutch of regulars with top spot in their Europa League section already then assured. A first European group success for the club was, in part, achieved precisely because they were able to thrive in unfamiliar settings. As proved with a first win for the club in Italy they claimed courtesy of Roman exploits over Lazio that followed a creditable, and well deserved, 1-1 draw in Rennes.

Drawing on the comparisons

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The parallel between Rennes and Lille can then offer encouragement to Lennon. Discouragement comes in the knowledge that Celtic did not go into their French foray last September seeking to address serious defensive deficiencies. Problems that have resulted in them conceding eight goals in three games – their worst such run in four years.

The 2-0 loss to Cluj apart, Lennon’s side have never coughed up more than one goal in their past ten European away games. Frankly, it does seem a stretch to believe their shortcomings will allow them to continue in such a vein against Lille. Especially since they will be ranged against opponents that have netted 12 goals in their past four games – four of these bagged in their emphatic victory away to Sparta Prague last week with which they began their Europa League Group H tilt.

If Celtic are to have any prospect of avoiding another damaging loss that would also hugely diminish any hope of group qualification, the vulnerabilities exhibited by Shane Duffy in recent games must somehow be eliminated. Potential replacement Nir Bitton may be back in Celtic’s squad following his recovery from Covid-19, as is Odsonne Edouard. However, is unlikely that either will be considered for a starting place. The upshot is that the Lille will provide the Republic of Ireland captain with the opportunity to play himself back into some sort of form … and atone for the ill-judged and misdirected clearance that precipitated Aberdeen’s second goal in the weekend 3-3 draw. Yet, the Celtic manager suggests, whatever his options, he would not have been swayed by the mullering given to Duffy for his performances at Pittodrie, against AC Milan, and in the derby.

Duffy defence

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“He is a big strong boy,” said Lennon. “I had a chat with him the other night. He is feeling it obviously, but he knows he’ll come through it. We just need to show him a bit of patience. He made a mistake at the weekend. The vitriol that has come after it is incredible, absolutely incredible. It is my job to support him and that is exactly what I will do, and I will support the other players as well. It isn’t the first time the players have been thrown out into the lion’s den, as it were, in terms of insults and criticism. But no one more so than myself. I know exactly what he is going through. He has the character and personality to bounce back straight away.”

It isn’t merely Celtic’s backline that needs to sharpen up, it is the protection offered by those in front of them. Analysis of the team’s metrics over the past four seasons by club blogger Celtic By Numbers demonstrated that chance creation and goalscoring both are on an upward trajectory across Lennon’s second spell. The fact Celtic have netted in every one of their nine, truly, competitive European away games over this period is surely an expression of that. Equally, though, the number-crunching also illustrated that opponents are able to play through Celtic more readily than in the Brendan Rodgers era.

Scott Brown?

This raises questions as to the screening offered by Scott Brown in his deep-lying role. And whether, at 35, the Celtic captain can still offer the mobility and bite required to smother attacks in pressurised situations. He started on the bench at Aberdeen. However, the need to shore up in central areas means that, for Lennon, the Lille assignment is one for the veteran of 129 European encounters. Indeed, it may be that Mohamed Elyounoussi is sacrificed in order to accommodate Ryan Christie, Callum McGregor, Tom Rogic and Olivier Ntcham as well as his on-field general.

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“I think this game is well suited to Scott,” said the Celtic manager. “He made a really positive contribution on Sunday at Aberdeen when he came on and he’s fresher. The rest did him the world of good and, obviously, he’ll come into contention to start.”

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