Why this Celtic defeat was different and not fatal for Neil Lennon

On the surface, a third straight concession of four goals on the continent suggests the 4-2 Europa League loss against AC Milan in the San Siro was another game to add to the grim collection for Celtic of late.
Celtic manager Neil Lennon.Celtic manager Neil Lennon.
Celtic manager Neil Lennon.

Yet, it wasn’t. Neil Lennon will hardly be doing cartwheels over his team’s horrific form run being extended to two wins in 11 games, when he has admitted he could have lost his job earlier this week, with many supporters enraged the club’s board have spared him. However, with all eyes on whether the players could offer up a response following Sunday’s League Cup loss to Ross County that led to a furore and fan protests, then the answer was in the affirmative.

Intractable, deep-rooted defensive problems that seem to afflict all those in the backline and lead to continued disquiet over goalkeeper Vasilis Barkas patently remain. They shamefully robbed Celtic of the ability build on the platform afforded to them when taking a shock two-goal lead inside the opening quarter of an hour. Yet, there was no doubting the application of the players, and significant individuals whose commitment has been questioned as Lennon’s side have proved calamitous.

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Odsonne Edouard, beyond the exquisite touch for his goal, demonstrated the artistry and technical prowess that made him such a potent performer last season. The spark definitely appeared to be evident in his game again. Kristoffer Ajer, too, was returned in large part to the driving, aggressive force that placed on Milan’s watchlist.

Lennon opted for a 4-5-1 in which he sought to manufacture width in playing Jermie Frimpong as effectively a winger. It was a role which the teenager attacked to cause problems for the Serie A leaders across the whole evening. As a five, the midfield functioned more rhythmically, and in creating a handful of chances aside from their two goals, Celtic were not guilty of turning in another dispiriting display. They came up short against a side that have enjoyed their best start to a league campaign in their illustrious history. In contrast to the 4-1 thumpings by Sparta Prague or the end of the club’s four-year unbeaten cup run against the Highlanders last time out, this was not a display to have the police manning the barricades outside Celtic Park.

Lennon will not, and should not, be judged on the outcome. The unerring capacity for his team to cough up cheap goals - 27 now shipped in across his sequence horribilis – remains what could send him to the floor permanently, but front to middle there were signs he has the “minerals” – as he might say – for improvement. He remains in a position when anything other than victory at home to St Johnstone on Sunday is unthinkable.

On the back of the mishap and misery they have endured, Celtic finding themselves two goals up inside 14 minutes against the runaway Serie A league leaders seemed too good to be true. The fact that it was shouldn’t take away from the energy and the purpose shown in those early stages by Lennon’s men that delivered results.

Confidence can only be shot following the club’s desperate run, yet Celtic had the determination and the desire to make good on slipshod defending from the home side only seven minutes in. Rade Krunic may have been sleeping to have the ball pinched from him at the edge of the box by Tom Rogic, but the Australian was alert to the opportunity presented and curled in a fine low drive.

If that was a neat finish, the one produced by Edouard to double Celtic’s advantage was sublime, as was its creation. Ryan Christie picked out the Frenchman ghosting in behind the home backline that the 22-year-old controlled as if on a string, before lifting the ball deftly over Gianluigi Donnarumma.

It all looked so good for Celtic then. Both Edouard and Callum McGregor might have claimed them a third in this period, incredibly, and they were compact and concentrated throughout the side. Right now, though, they seem incapable of displaying those attributes for 90 minutes. Goals come easy for opponents and that was true of the two in three minutes midway through the period that turned the encounter on its head.

The 24th minute free-kick that allowed Milan to strike back was the product of a needless and clumsy challenge from Christie on Ante Rebic. The subsequent hit from Hakan Calhanoglu seemed to beat Barkas at his left-handed post because the keeper got his angles all wrong with a half-step to his right. The equaliser was another collection of half-baked defensive interventions with Jens Petter Hauge given too much room to cut the ball back from the inside left channel before McGregor and Ajer weren’t forceful enough in attempting to clear before the ball broke to Samu Castillejo, whose crack at goal spun off Diego Laxalt and looped high into the net.

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Celtic did well to regain their composure and reset themselves for the remainder of the first period but then promptly let themselves down when from the left touchline Hauge all too easily evaded challenges from Frimpong and McGregor before guiding a low effort in at Barkas’s far post. A delightful curling free-kick from Christie might have brought an equaliser late on but for a brilliant save from the Italian keeper before Hatem Abd Elhamed proved woeful in merely dangling a leg as Huage drove at him to allow the wide man to flip in a cross that substitute Brahim Diaz clipped over the Greek keeper to complete the scoring.

AC Milan: Donnarumma, Dalot, Kjaer (Romagnoli 11), Gabbia, Hernandez, Krunic (Tonali 45), Kessie (Bennacer 61), Calhanoglu (Diaz 61), Castillejo, Rebic (Colombo 83), Hauge.

Celtic: Barkas, Elhamed, Bitton, Ajer, Laxalt; Frimpong, Rogic (Ntcham 66), Brown (Soro 78), McGregor, Christie (Klimala 86); Edouard.

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