Celtic dampen the noise around Neil Lennon as 4-1 victory at Motherwell earns breathing space
There will be no-one at Celtic fooled into thinking a, relatively, straightforward 4-1 victory at Motherwell is a panacea for all the Scottish champions’ ills.
Crucially, though, a victory underpinned by a Mohamed Elyounoussi hat-trick affords what Neil Lennon and his team needs most: some breathing space. It buys him time to remedy the maladies that have afflicted his team for so much of this season without dealing with an ever-more deafening chorus calling him out.
Going into the international break, had Lennon’s team failed to claim only a second win in seven games, there would have been fears about the impact of the decibel levels from the increasing ranks of the discontented. Ultimately, Celtic did so with a bit to spare, even allowing for once again displaying jitteriness in a defence that did not feature Shane Duffy from the first whistle.
There was the drive, aggression and attacking elan that put the display in a different stratosphere from the shambolic and soulless performance that resulted in a 4-1 thumping from Sparta Prague on Thursday. Lennon maintained he got the basics of hunger, humility and application that were posted missing in the horrendous Europa League encounter. It is hard to argue with the assessment, even if there were dips and dodgy moments. Some among the Celtic faithful have hardened their hearts against Lennon, though, that they will still find plenty to fault.
Elyounoussi rings thrice
Celtc cyberspace was pinging with quips that Elyounoussi couldn’t be accused of phoning it in at Fir Park, after being embroiled in mobilegate this week. It wasn’t a good look for him to be pictured on his device in the stand following his substitution on Thursday, but the reaction to it was hugely over the top.
The on-loan Southampton attacker’s triple takes his tally for this campaign to 11 goals and places him firmly out in front as the club’s top scorer. The movement and impetus he provides in the final third, allied to the vision and weaving of Tom Rogic, certainly supplied Celtic with oil to fire up the final-third fluency that has proved elusive too often of late.
The Norwegian said he was determined to show following his phone error that his attitude and commitment did not warrant being questioned. He certainly made good on that aim in demonstrating his appetite for the fray within eight minutes, when he pounced in lethal fashion to drill the ball in after a shot on the turn from Albian Ajeti had rebounded off the inside of the post. His second, to make it 2-0 on the half hour mark, was all about Rogic’s lovely footwork with the Australian skipping round three men on the right hand byline and delivering a perfectly-weighted cutback that Elyounoussi stroked into the far corner.
The 76th minute response to Motherwell pulling a goal back four minutes earlier that allowed Elyounoussi to walk away with the matchball, showed the forward’s versatility. A slight figure, there was force and finesse in his snapping neck muscles to head in a Hatem Abd Elhamed delivery from the right. It ensured there would be no comeback from the home side, late replacement Oliver Ntcham picking his spot for an 84th minute fourth goal after Elyounoussi and fellow substitute Odsonne Edouard opened the home side up down the left.
The Duffy difference
It would be easy to overstate the impact of Duffy’s omission from the starting line-up at Fir Park. With Krisoffer Ajer partnering Nir Bitton at the heart of defence before a recurrence of the Norwegian’s recent groin problem forced Duffy to replace him late on, Celtic still betrayed a vulnerability from balls into the box.
As Motherwell applied pressure in the second period, some of their penalty area defending was harem-scarem. And it was no surprise when Declan Gallagher drifted in a header from a free-kick to make it 2-1 in 72 minutes, which crept past Scott Bain at the right-hand post. No trust can be placed in Celtic’s defensive unit, and that will remain a worry for Lennon.
Celtic captain Scott Brown, like his manager, has been scapegoated to a ridiculous degree for the Parkhead side’s shortcomings in the past three months. He has even been accused of dragging down his deep-lying midfielder partner Callum McGregor. The strong showing from Brown at Fir Park, where he was forceful and snapping into challenges, could be perceived as riposte to his detractors. The 35-year-old has not hit the heights of previous seasons, but that could be said of practically all around him in Celtic colours.
Indeed, that McGregor once more didn’t get a grip on proceedings that would have previously been a given for a performer of his undoubted talents, could be construed as significant. The Scotland international looks like a man who has struggled to peak regularly on the back of three seasons where he has played so much football. He just looks as if he might be overplayed right now, but with huge fixtures coming up for Steve Clarke’s Scotland side in the coming week, particularly the Euro 2020 play-off in Serbia on Thursday, the likelihood of further mental and physical fatigue may prove unavoidable.
Motherwell; Chapman; O’Donnell, O’Hara, Gallagher, McGinley; Campbell, Maguire (Crawford 71), Polworth ; Lang, Watt (White 81), Cole (Long 71). Subs: Grimshaw, Hastie, Archer, Devine, Cornelius, Johnston.
Celtic: Bain; Frimpong (Elhamed 70), Bitton, Ajer (Duffy 78), Laxalt; Brown, McGregor; Christie, Rogic (Ntcham 84), Elyounoussi; Ajeti (Edouard 70). Subs: Barkas, Taylor, Griffiths, Klimala.
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