It wasn’t just a record that Neil Lennon was guaranteed last night; his latest Champions League qualifier moving him above Martin O’Neill and putting him second only to Jock Stein for European games presided over by a Celic manager.
The decision to operate without a recognised striker in the absence of the injured Odsonne Edouard ensured an avalanche of opprobrium would be guaranteed to come his way in the event of his reshaped team failing against Ferencvaros.
With that very fate befalling his team, Lennon won’t so much need a tin helmet as a mobile nuclear shelter to deal with the heat he will feel in next few days. It was yet one more entirely avoidable European exit. And it’s one that doesn’t just mean a third consecutive season of Champions League exile. This was the club’s earliest exit from the competition since the debacle against Artmedia of Bratislava in 2005.
Ahead of kick-off, Lennon maintained that the decision to play Ryan Christie through the middle and not turn to actual strikers Patryk Klimala or Albian Ajeti was simply the consequence of the pair not currently being “match fit”.
Yet, the huge call made for a line-up that no-one had anticipated – or had any great confidence in, frankly. Such trepidation seemed well placed when David Siger’s precision finish capped an impressive opening spell from the Hungarian champions when they looked to have the measure of a disjointed, edgy Celtic. They caused havoc with counter attacked, and closed up deftly to clamp their opponents when required.
Ultimately, though, that wasn’t the tale of another sorry exit from the Champions League. Celtic’s complete domination of the tie for the next hour, which brought them back on terms through – wouldn’t you know – a deflected Christie strike 53 minutes in, should have given them the platform to extricate themselves from a tight spot.
The fact it didn’t will be attributed to the raft of chances they passed up but they didn’t lose the tie on that basis.
They lost because of the defensive slackness that has made them a soft touch at Celtic Park in knock-out continental football, whether the stadium has been full or, as last night, deserted.
Hatem Elhamed’s failure to deal with a ball simply launched downfield that resulted in Tokmac Nguen being able to shrug him off and net a 74th minute clincher had nothing to do with Celtic’s forward line.
Between the European exits in Glasgow to Cluj, Copenhagen and now Ferencvaros in the past 12 months Cetic have coughed up nine goals in their own backyard against three teams that are not known as prolific scorers. That has to point to some systemic problem.
Lennon has pulled off some spectacular results in Europe. He has also been at the helm as Celtic have endured some desperate outcomes. And when it comes to the club in Champions League qualifiers, it has to be noted that no manager of the club has been responsible for more failures.
What he simply cannot countenance is falling short of making it through the two qualifying rounds of the Europa League that Celtic now require to negotiate to secure continental group stage football for a tenth straight season.
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