Broken Celtic bonds and Solskjaer Man Utd situation - front foot only way to save Neil Lennon
There was a degree of wishful thinking from Neil Lennon in the claim that, with Celtic’s 4-1 win in Motherwell, his players had “managed a mini-crisis very well”.
The use of the past tense is out of place. Celtic will emerge from the international break in a fortnight’s time in much the same mini-crisis as when they entered it. It can be no other way when they trail Rangers by nine points … in a league campaign their support adjudges the foremost across their entire history owing to the pursuit of an historic 10th straight title.
A bond has been broken between Lennon and large swathes of the Celtic faithful. In part through no shortcomings attributable to the 49-year-old, since the Ibrox club’s daunting lead in the Premiership is potentially the result of Steven Gerrard’s men having played two games more than their ancient adversaries.
Circumstances, more than facts or reason, can determine perceptions, however. As a result, it seems now set in stone that this season Lennon will be forever one poor result away from all-too-many frothing fans demanding he be escorted from the premises to prevent him ‘destroying’ their beloved 10.
Lennon and football’s death row
It rarely ends well when a manager finds himself in football’s equivalent of death row. There is a parallel with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United. Both are woven into the fabric of their clubs as a consequence of glittering, and lengthy, service. Now the pair are finding both that their every act and the every act of those under their charge, never mind every on-field display, are being micro-analysed to arrive at macro-conclusions that find no place for pleas in mitigation.
Mercifully for Lennon, though, there are also crucial differences in the predicaments of the pair. Week in, week out, Solskjaer’s future is going on the line against some of the most capable teams in world football. Between now and Christmas, AC Milan and Lille will be the only teams faced by Lennon’s men that will not have been assembled for a fraction of Celtic’s cost.
One ten will determine the pursuit of another
The short and long-term prospects of Lennon in his second spell at the Celtic helm will come down to a ten that isn’t a title sequence. Rather, it is a series of games his club will play before the crunch January 2 derby away to Rangers: six in the league, three in the Europa League and the Scottish Cup final against Hearts on December 20. For our purposes, we will park the, likely, two yet-to-be decided League Cup ties the pair will face across the period.
Steven Gerrard’s men will play seven league matches in the same period. All are eminently winnable for a team boasting 18 wins and two draws from their 20 encounters this season.
That potentially places huge pressure on Lennon and his players. As does the postponement of a Premiership fixture in the weekend before Christmas to accommodate Celtic’s bid to bring up a quadruple treble. This fixture imbalance between the Glasgow titans means that, were both to win all their league games ahead of their new year confrontation, Lennon’s side would find themselves a thumping 12 points adrift, with three games in hand.
The prospect of an even more sizeable gap in the title race before the halfway point simply does not bear thinking about. Not for Celtic, not for the club’s faithful and not for Lennon himself. And, most pointedly, not for the club’s board. It means any slip across their next six league games - a sequence that begins away to Hibernian a week on Saturday - could prove ultimately fatal to Lennon’s hopes of remaining in charge.
Forget the second half of their doomed Europa League group campaign. Certainly, Lennon must avoid at all costs any more sorry slaughters akin to the excruciating 4-1 defeat at home to Sparta Prague last Thursday. In this unique domestic season, though, continental competition is highly unlikely to decide his fate.
A return to hallmark winning runs
What is imperative to Lennon is that his side knock-off wins away to Hibs, at home to St Johnstone and Kilmarnock, away to Hamilton, at home to Dundee United and at Hampden against Hearts in the closing six weeks of 2020. Or, to put it another way, beat seven teams that aren’t even currently among the three leading sides in Scottish football.
That hardly ought to be a task beyond them. For all the recent furore over their recent form slump, their domestic record across 2020 still reads 23 wins, three draws and one defeat. Even in this stuttering campaign, they have dropped no more points to the ‘other’ sides than Rangers.
With Christopher Jullien to return post international break and Odsonne Edouard two weeks further clear of Covid-19 by then, Lennon essentially will have a group of players to negotiate a punishing pre-new year schedule that have course and distance form for doing so. Even this season, they racked up six straight Premiership wins before coming a cropper against Rangers a month ago. And that was the fifth run of six straight league victories or more - a number of these many more - in their past four years of unbridled success.
Lennon will not be able to iron out the deep-seated defensive imperfections of his team in a matter of weeks. Yet, the fact his array of attacking options should provide him with the potency and creativity of Mohamed Elyounoussi, Albian Ajeti, Leigh Griffiths, Ryan Christie, Tom Rogic and Edouard for the immediate domestic challenges ahead, suggests shortcomings at the back need not be his undoing. If Celtic are on the front foot for the rest of 2020 on the home front, Lennon can avoid being brought to his knees.