After Rangers defeat, where does this leave Celtic and Neil Lennon now?
A quest ended, and disfigured, by calamity that amounted to self-harm.
That’s how Celtic’s now hopeless bid for a record tenth title ought to be recalled. The inexplicable nature of the 1-0 defeat by Rangers at Ibrox that has allowed Steven Gerrard’s men to establish an insurmountable 19-point league lead is exemplified by one statistic: the game proved Rangers’ first in almost a decade in which they did not produce a single shot on target. Celtic’s ability to lose in such circumstances, when they utterly dominated their adversaries for an hour, typifies the ill-starred nature of this campaign for the Scottish champions – a status they now hold in name only.
Nir Bitton’s brainless professional foul on Alfredo Morelos to earn himself a red card in the 62nd minute was another in the collectors’ items of poor defensive decisions that have lost Celtic touch with, what it must be recognised, is an astonishingly durable Rangers side. It can be added to the poor judgement calls that led to point-costing penalties away to Kilmarnock, Aberdeen and Hibs that put them under the most extreme pressure not to lose a second-straight league derby in this campaign. A failure that they somehow found a way to suffer.
Rangers possess the indefinable element that has drained from Celtic this season – they conjure up the means to win games from the most unpromising, or uninspiring, situations. The goalkeeping brilliance of Allan McGregor in a remarkably one-sided opening period provided that unlikely platform for this latest dagger to Celtic’s 10-tattooed hearts.
Of course, even with McGregor and Bitton’s contrasting contributions, it really put the tin lid on footballing sorcery of Gerrard’s men that they were able to rack up a 14th straight Premiership victory – the sort of sequence Celtic have not achieved in four years – courtesy of an own goal from Callum McGregor in the 70th minute. When the fates decree your goose will be cooked in this game, they can really braise the infernal bird.
This will haunt Lennon
Lennon will turn over this encounter in his mind for the rest of his days, frankly. The command, control and calibre of football his team fashioned in the first 45 minutes will have been beyond what he would hoped for even in a perfect world. The imperfect aspect was, of course, the inability to find a way past McGregor, who seemed to defy gravity to hang in the air and push away a goalbound drive from Leigh Griffiths midway through the opening period.
Questions inevitably will turn to where Celtic go from here, and what the effective end of a title campaign that never really started will mean for the short, and long-term, future of the club’s manager. Even allowing for the outcome at Ibrox, there is no arguing that Lennon has nursed back to health a team that looked firmly on their last legs as they slumped to a 23-year worst sequence of two wins in 12 between October and early December.
Trigger unlikely to be pulled
The Celtic board, even as they now conduct the review the promised an insurrectionist support following violent stadium protests a month or so ago, are unlikely to relieve Lennon of his duties. They won’t because of the glimmers of promise – built around the emergence of David Turnbull and Ismaila Soro, principally – across a run of successes Celtic could not extend to seven games because of their latest derby defeat.
They have 19 games – exactly half the league season – still to play. Yet, the fact is that Celtic could win every one of these and still not overhaul Rangers. The Ibrox team would require to drop five further points even in that scenario to fail to claim their first championship crown in a decade. Or, to put it another way, they would need to spill three times as many points in their closing 17 games than they have in remaining unbeaten across their first 22 Premiership matches, all but two won.
The next falter from Celtic, which will come at some point, could fatally loosen Lennon’s grip on a position to which he has clung with no little grace and fortitude. Indeed, precisely the facets that, in crucial moments across this campaign, have all-too-readily deserted his team. But for defensive mishap, Celtic could have easily shared the spoils across both derbies, whatever the hype applied to Rangers’ triumph in the first one in October.
Bitton’s error summed it up
Sometimes football doesn’t come down to majesty so much as the ability to mask limitations. Gerrard has struck paydirt in finding the perfect balance in this equation, while Celtic have always had mistakes in them when they have been least able to afford them. Their summer transfer manoeuvres have merely exaggerated their challenges on this front. Vasilias Barkas and Shane Duffy were not responsible for what happened in the second derby. However, neither the £4.5million keeper signing from AEK Athens or the on-loan centre-back from Brighton have been telling assets when Celtic have required them to be.
The pre-match loss of Christopher Jullien to a knee injury Lennon revealed would sideline the Frenchman for up to four months, should have paved the way for Duffy to step up. Notably, though, Lennon felt he could have more trust in a midfielder converted into a centre-back than the Republic of Ireland captain who has made his career on being a shall-not-pass pivot. As it was, Bitton betrayed Lennon’s confidence crushingly. The fact is, though, that the Israeli’s gross error of judgement was simply symptomatic of what has spectacularly derailed the club when they fully expected to be journeying towards the ultimate historical destination in the Scottish game.
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers. If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.