It’s rare for the Celtic support to boo their team off the park as they did last night, after losing 4-3 to Cluj. When I woke this morning I was still pissed off. Let’s be honest, in terms of fitba hangovers, that’s right up there with getting beaten by Warburton’s Rangers in that Scottish Cup semi-final a few years ago. We blew it. Against an average team from Romania with a budget a fortieth of Celtic’s, we lost four goals. We are not in the promised land of Champions League football. What makes it worse is our fate was in our hands.
After an insipid first half, we were ahead at 2-1, then were ahead at 3-2. Even in the dying minutes, McGregor headed a ball back into the box, it caught the Cluj defence flat-footed. It was a dream ticket to make it 4-3 to Celtic, with Griffiths getting a head to it. You could see what he was trying to do, nod it past the keeper and then slot it in. It went past the post. Game over. Only it wasn’t. Cluj scored a late winner, which made no difference, Celtic were out anyway.
Remember when Barcelona came to Parkhead and we couldn’t get the ball and they won? Which game? You are probably asking. They did that every game. Apart from one game when we were lucky enough to cause an upset.
Or PSG, remember when they came to Parkhead and we couldn’t get the ball?
In these game Celtic supporters applauded their opponents off the pitch. We recognised class tells in the end. We were outclassed. Ironically, when we played PSG in the away fixture a few weeks later we scored first, Dembele, then lost seven. But we actually had passages of play when we were better than we were at Parkhead.
Last night hurt because we took it as a given that we would qualify, not for the Champions League proper, but for the play-off spot. We’d contested the first leg, got that elusive away goal and…you know the rest. We’d got the measure of Cluj, only we hadn’t.
In terms of post-mortem, lots of angry Tims are focusing on Boli. He seemed to me and I’ve said it after seeing him in several game, no better than Izzy. To play McGregor at left-back seemed the wrong thing to do and seemed to be rather desperate. We did it at Ibrox and the flak Brendan Rodgers took was incredible. McGregor was one of our better players that day. Bain was at fault for the goal at Ibrox and last night.
At one point I’d Scott Bain down for the unsung hero and our player of the year. His saves at the end of matches, and I’m thinking of a point blank save against Hibs, in particular, won us points, won us the championship. But the truth is he stopped performing after that. Let in a couple of howlers. Looked nervy against Rangers, and in the Scottish Cup final. He stopped making vital saves. He stopped making, all but the bread-and-butter saves any average keeper would make. He’s carried that form into this season. Prove me wrong. Tell me one save he’s made to win us a game? I can’t think of any. Quite simply, we need a change of keeper.
Left back, we finished the season with Johnny Hayes, who wasn’t too bad. He isn’t Celtic class a winger, and he’s not Celtic class as a full-back, but he’s an option we’ve used. He does a job. Boli doesn’t. It seems that Lennon looked at all the supposed things he’d done, which seemed to me, rather bog standard and decided he couldn’t defend. I agree with Lennon. Boli is what Brendan Rodgers used to call a work in progress. Our left back spot is still up for grabs.
Right back seems sorted. The Israeli, Hatem Abd Elhamed , seems decent enough. Strong in the air. Good on the deck. Keeps the ball. Can whip in a cross.
Central defence is a mess. Simply Ayer, who has being receiving the kind of reviews that would make Messi blush, and Jozo are the number one pairing. The goals we lose from corners and cross balls is quite simply shocking. Fling in another French man, who is also over six-foot six and we have massive players in terms of height. What we don’t have is the ability to head the ball away consistently. We lost two poor goals away at Motherwell. Last night’s quadruple, if we include the penalty, where Brown, inexplicably, went for the ball with his hand, and three out of four goals were from cross balls. The other was a goalkeeping error, with defenders not following in on the rebound. The centre cannot hold and Celtic fall apart, as was shown last night.
The Brown-McGregor holding spot looks OK. Both are seasoned pros. One of them is worth twenty million. Maybe Lennon should have played Brown at left back. Ntcham has played a couple of games and looked better than his slothful, slithering self. He’s definitely a player, but I’d sell him in a heartbeat.
Mikey-boy-Johnstone had one of those games last night when he flashed a shot across goal and then, pretty much, disappeared. He’s a bit like Rogic, after ten minutes you know what you’re going to get. He should have come off.
James Forest is the player Lennon used to rave about first time around. His finish for the first goal was coolness personified. He’s a first pick.
Ryan Christie is a star too. He’s been the find of last season and this season too. Brilliant finish. Incredible workrate. Great in the air for his size and one of the few that can hold their head high.
Odsonne Edouard is an enigma. He’s great and good and not so good. But he’s a natural centre-forward (whatever that is) and scores goals. As he did last night latching onto a defensive mistake and slotting it away. His dummy to set up Forest was also superb. He was good with hold up and had a good night – before the roof fell in.
The truth is the problems that were with us last season have been carried into this season. We concede very soft goals and look increasingly vulnerable from teams that counterattack with pace. That was one reason Boli didn’t play. He’s so high up the park most of the time the left flank is left open. We can’t blame him or Julien last night, but that’s ten million sitting on the bench. Is it money wasted? That’s a question that needs to be answered.
It depends how you do your counting, but let’s say Celtic lost thirty million by not qualifying for the Champions League. I don’t care about the money. I love the glamour. Big ties against the better teams. All gone. The Keynesian multiplier effect comes into play, but in a negative way. Remember Europa league ties with the top tier shut? That’s how I feel about the Europa league. Of course I want Celtic to win every game, even if it’s tiddlywinks. But I’m still angry. When we go to Ibrox in a couple of weeks I think we’ll win. But we’ll need to have invested in a new left back, a new goalie and we’ll need to get a central defence partnership that can actually defend. Lennon has been taking a hiding from the media. There’ll be no hiding after Ibrox. Lose and he could be out of work for Christmas.