Craig Fowler takes us through four things we learned from a disappointing end to the Europa League campaign for the Scottish champions
1) Ajax were no great shakes
In a vacuum there are positives that could be taken from last night’s game.
Celtic were down four of their five best outfield players, in a real pressure atmosphere against a traditional European heavyweight. They likely wouldn’t have lost the game either if they hadn’t needed to win in the final minutes.
Young players, particularly Kieran Tierney and Callum McGregor, stood up to the test, while Jozo Simunovic lasted 90 minutes and looked fairly solid at the middle of an improved, if still clearly lacking, Celtic defence.
However, Ajax they were in name, but not in nature.
The visitors were missing a number of key players themselves and have endured, until last night, a fairly dismal Europa League campaign of their own.
It’s a once great club that’s been on the decline for a couple of decades now and doesn’t look like recovering any time soon. At least not to be a proper European force once again. And yet Celtic still allowed them to take three points from a trip to Glasgow.
The real problem for Ronny Deila going forward is that, throughout the squad, in nearly every area, his players haven’t looked capable. It’s not just one problem that can be fixed in a transfer window. At least not without heavy investment or some really shroud signings.
2) Deila does have the ability to alter his formation and system
Hurrah! Even if you believe that a football team should play a certain brand of football, it’s usually not a clever idea to go professing to all and sundry that this is the only style your team is going to use. Molde probably didn’t even need to watch DVDs of Celtic games, they just needed to read Ronny Deila’s reaction in match reports.
With a defence as weak as any witnessed at Celtic Park since the John Barnes era, Deila finally set up his side to sit back more and counter attack. It works well for two reasons, 1) with Leigh Griffiths and James Forrest on the pitch, along with Gary Mackay-Steven to a lesser extent, he has players who can hurt opponents running in behind, and 2) it affords the defence greater protection across the 90 minutes.
The second goal would likely never have come had Celtic not chased a late winner, and the first goal was a bit of a fluke. That may look like this writer is making excuses for the back four, but the ability to even make excuses for such a sorry excuse of a unit is a definite improvement.
If Deila has learned to be more pragmatic in Europe it could become a silver lining in the otherwise all-encompassing dark cloud that’s been this campaign - should he make it to next season.
3) Scott Allan should be given a run in the side
The former Hibs man was far from perfect, but in his initial 10 minute burst after entering the field of play there was no doubting his quality and he should have swung the game in Celtic’s favour.
He’ll have games where he drops out of things completely and others when he falls in love with the reserve pass for no apparent reason, but with Celtic’s season lacking definition, at least until the League Cup semi-final, checking out the potential of some high-ceiling fringe players is exactly what Deila should be doing.
If he can get it right with Allan he’ll have a top class player on his hands. The midfielder’s vision and ability to pull off passes such as the one played through for Griffiths is something that only Stefan Johansen can match, and even then the Norwegian’s form has been deeply disappointing this campaign.
4) The striker question is back
Ever since Gary Hooper left to return down south, Celtic fans have waited and waited for the next striker who’s going to replicate Hooper’s heroics in Europe.
After terrific showings at home to Malmo and Fenerbahce, it seemed certain they’d finally found that man in Leigh Griffiths. Scotland fans also used such evidence to beat Gordon Strachan with since they felt the Celtic hit-man should be starting over Steven Fletcher for the national side.
But there’s a reason Strachan doesn’t trust Griffiths with the lone striker role in the Scotland team, and it’s been shown in the three games since the Fenerbahce draw.
That small sample size doesn’t definitively prove that this is the real Griffiths. He’s improved as a player throughout his time at Celtic and could improve further to the point where he’s definitely the man to lead the team in Europe, while simultaneously forcing Strahan to reconsider his opinion. But it does raise the question of whether Celtic should be looking at other options at striker if they want to get better in Europe.
Speaking of whom, where is Carlton Cole?