The external pressures on Neil Lennon to secure ten-in-a-row are great enough. Starting a home league game against Motherwell without a recognised striker was always likely to add to the list.
In midweek the Parkhead boss set himself against supporter sentiment by going without a recognised centre-forward against Fenerbache. Celtic crashed out of the Champions League and sticking with the starting eleven which spilled £30million down a manhole was never likely to build bridges with fans reared on the attacking brilliance of Dalglish and Larsson.
The £3.5million January signing Patryk Klimala appeared at half-time and contrived to miss two huge chances. Yet that was one more than a team with no strikers crafted in the whole of a first half when a strike from James Forrest was all they had to show from a game where midfielders and wingers lacked a focal point.
Albian Ajeti, the £5million signing from West Ham, came on as a substitute 20 minutes from the end and thrashed the decisive second goal into the net within four minutes. By then Celtic had reshaped to a 3-5-2 and looked more like themselves. It’s amazing the difference a striker or two can make.
‘I wasn’t overly delighted with the first half,’ admitted Lennon afterwards. I thought we were a little bit passive and a little bit lukewarm.
‘The second half we were a lot better and as the game wore on we got stronger and stronger. I’m delighted with the three points and the majority of the performance.
‘It’s a good reaction and players are starting to look better – Julien, Forrest, Ajer. They are starting to get into their match rhythm now.’
Pre-match the Celtic boss explained his stance on his two new strikers by insisting they are still not match fit. The dilemma lies in how they actually *get* match fit unless they see game time. In that respect, at least, this was a useful day at the office.
‘Patryk did 45 and did well, but was really blowing towards the end,’ added the Celtic boss. ‘Albian needs conditioning work, but you can see what a good player he is even with the moments that he was on the pitch.’
Even in an empty Celtic Park the relief which followed a strike from James Forrest five minutes before half-time was palpable.
Even with the injured Odsonne Edouard in the team breaking down a dogged, resolute, organised Motherwell would have been a bind. Without him a team of midfielders and wingers scurried around for 40 minutes toiling to find an out ball.
It needed the kind of probing, penetrating run missing from Callum McGregor’s game in recent weeks to break the visiting line. The goal came from a swift counter attack, the man of the match bursting from his own half to feed Forrest on the right side of the area.
Motherwell defender Ricki Lamie made the fatal mistake of standing off, allowing Forrest the time to steady himself before picking his spot to thump the ball high into the corner of the net for his first strike of the season. The celebrations felt like the release of a pressure cooker. Celtic needed inspiration from somewhere.
Lamie’s momentary lapse was tough on a Motherwell who now slide to the bottom of the league. Stephen Robinson’s side defended well for the most part and threatened on the counter. Nevertheless, it’s now six games without a win.
Liam Grimshaw and Tony Watt created decent first half chances and for Celtic it clearly wasn’t working.
The jury is still out on whether Klimala has what it take to succeed at Celtic. Publicly the concerns are fitness related. Despite an opening day strike against Motherwell, however, the suspicion is that his manager remains to be convinced.
The Pole narrowly failed to connect with an enticing Christie cross from the left after 54 minutes then missed a simple tap-in from three yards after Greg Taylor laid the ball on a plate.
The introduction of Frimpong and Ajeti dovetailed with a switch of formation to 3-5-2, Forrest switching to left wing-back. Celtic instantly improved.
Klimala managed to squander another superb chance when he was clean through on goal one on one with keeper.
Yet Celtic were making chances now, stretching the visitors in the right areas. They were merely saving the best for last. A clever prodded ball from Ajeti sent the lively, quick Frimpong scrurrying towards the Motherwell 18 yard box. As Klimala’s striker’s run drew defenders one way, Frimpong went the other – a smart pass picking out the unlikely figure of Christopher Julien to slam home the third goal.
Emerging from his best performance of the season, Callum McGregor offered some perspectice. When Celtic and their supporters stay together they tend to win. When they’re at each other’s throats, the opposite applies.
‘You do get set-backs along the way,’ said McGregor. ‘What’s important is that it galvanises the team now.
‘We’ve had the criticism and it’s only us in there who can fix it. That’s what we tried to do against Motherwell. We tried to put it right a little bit. Ultimately things are going to go wrong at some point. What’s important is how we react to that.
‘Throughout the years, whenever we’ve faced adversity we’ve always come back really strongly. And that was the message for us after the other night.
‘When you actually break down the performance the other night, it’s fine margins. Sometimes that happens in football.
‘We try not to get too disappointed about it. Obviously it’s a big thing for the club, but if we let things implode then it goes the other way and everybody else wins.’