Twelve points behind Rangers and silverware looking distinctly remote, it is imperative that Celtic kick-start their season against Rennes in the Europa League.
Joe Ledley has been in the press this week stating that Celtic need to win their next 26 games to win the Scottish title. It’s worse than that though. Celtic and their manager have two games to save their entire season…
These days you cannot read or hear about Celtic without the name Neil Lennon popping into the sentence. See what I mean? Such is his profile in Scottish football and beyond he is now synonymous with the club. With the lack of any real superstars on the Parkhead pitch Lennon has become the focal point for fans of all clubs, media hawks, politicians and all the glory and hate that goes with that unique role. Results are erratic, the squad clearly lack confidence and with the continual loss of points the chances of silverware slips further and further away.
Yet it is still the manager who elicits the most concern. Word from inside the squad is that Lennon is noticeably withdrawn this season. Less engaged, less involved. That perhaps the outrageous and damaging off-field events of last season have changed his outlook and behaviour both as a manager and, more crucially, as a man. That the arm-around-the-shoulder, infectiously enthusiastic and inclusive Neil Lennon is gone. Giving way instead to a more stand-offish, brooding and disciplined manager with a propensity to explode into fits of anger in a bid to motivate his flailing players. Possible explanations point to an odd maturity developing or perhaps a conscious attempt to progress from being one-of-the-lads to a 'proper' coach but it looks much less benign that that. It looks as though Lennon is trying to extract himself from the hateful firing line. Trying to push the focus onto the players and the club. Away from his own personal sideshow. Unable, or unwilling, to absorb the lion share of the slings and arrows anymore. And who can blame him? But as he turns the spotlight off himself and onto his players they are responding by buckling, one-by-one, in front of his eyes.
The pressure is not because he’s Northern Irish, Catholic, bad tempered, ginger or whatever. It’s solely because the team aren’t performing on the pitch.
Giorgios Samaras and Gary Hooper are both either alarmingly unfit or off the boil in front of goal, whilst the centre-halves, Daniel Majstorovic and Glenn Loovens look like mentally shattered ghosts of their former selves while key players from last season suddenly look bereft of ideas or motivation. Of the players who are playing well, namely Ki Sung-Yeung, Joe Ledley, Mark Wilson and James Forrest, all are being ominously eyed up by Premier League scouts looking for a January swoop. Rumours persist in the media about an ugly personal falling out between Kris Commons and Lennon and talk of ego problems, long term injuries and unrest in the camp further destabilising confidence. Add to that interest from Leicester in Neil Lennon and collectively it doesn’t bode well for the future. However, it’s an old adage but a good one and a week in football is truly a long time indeed. Celtic Football Club and its fans need a big week from both their players and their young manager.
First up is Rennes at home in the Europa League. With the group table showing Udinese as the front runners and Athletico Madrid threatening to make it a forgone conclusion for second place it’s essential that Celtic post a good result on Thursday night. Rennes look decidedly ropey and have yet to see a win in the group. Statistics would point to a comfortable home win - Celtic are unbeaten in their past five European home games whilst Rennes haven’t won away in Europe for six games. However, with the Celtic team looking as shaky as a B&Q wardrobe and being that they have consistently wobbled in the games that, on paper, have looked easy, it’s effectively anyone’s game to win. An early goal will be crucial for the Hoops to settle the nerves and build confidence but if Rennes are allowed to counter-attack effectively then it could be the end of Europa league campaign, even before the vital game against Athletico Madrid in a few weeks’ time.
Sunday then sees the unlikely battle for second place in the SPL reach a timely milestone. Motherwell at Fir Park will set a benchmark for the rest of the season. If Celtic fail to win, Lennon’s position then becomes almost untenable. Motherwell are going well this year under Stuart McCall and Kenny Black whilst with Higdon and Murphy they have a genuinely dangerous strike force. Celtic will hope the solidity that the recently returned Thomas Rogne has brought to the defence will provide a base for our inconsistent but potentially excellent midfield to push on from. Goals may be a problem but hopefully if Anthony Stokes has his scoring boots on and Hooper can get some confidence from the Rennes match then the goals we so desperately need may just come.
Never before in the managerial career of Neil Lennon has the pressure been so intense in a purely footballing capacity. This time the pressure is not because he’s Northern Irish, Catholic, bad tempered, ginger or whatever. This time it’s solely because the team aren’t performing on the pitch and results are nowhere near as good as required. The next two games will test Lennon in a managerial capacity only. Let’s hope he has the heart, knowledge and ability to instil confidence in his team. Failure to get wins from the next two games and it’s season over for Celtic and game over for Lennon as manager.
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