It may just as well be that Neil Lennon likes to be under pressure. After another loss to Sparta Prague, the pressure on the Celtic boss will not ease any time soon.
The truth is that the longer Celtic displays such awful defensive ineptitude, the harder it will be for the remaining supporters of Lennon to protect him. Since they last kept a clean sheet in a late win at St. Johnstone, Celtic have now conceded 19 goals in seven matches. Out of their last nine matches, they picked up two victories, conceding 21 goals in the process. And from the Europa League, they’re gone.
The fact that in only two games they conceded eight goals against this obviously underserved side of Sparta Prague borders on farcical. Lukas Julis, who capped his Celtic Park hat-trick here with a brace after David Hancko had cancelled out Odsonne Edouard’s early opening goal, scored five of those. In stoppage time, Srdan Plavsic made it 4-1, which played into Celtic’s hands.
Yet at the beginning, it had looked so promising for Celtic, as Edouard’s goal was a turning point for the striker and his team. In the end, though, it was a familiar picture: the attack by Celtic was blunted and the defense was in total disarray.
Compared to Saturday’s draw against Hibernian, there were four changes to the Celtic lineup, with Christopher Jullien returning to the squad for the first time since September and Hatem Elhamed set to reinforce the right side at the expense of Jeremie Frimpong. That was the idea, at least. Regardless of the security staff Lennon used, the same vulnerabilities existed.
Olivier Ntcham replaced Tom Rogic further up the pitch, while Edouard came on for Albian Ajeti in the forward line.
You would have thought Celtic would have taken note of the way David Moberg Karlsson set the tone as Celtic Park was stormed by Sparta, but early on he was granted freedom on the pitch as he fired a shot narrowly wide before setting up a great headed chance that Andreas Vindheim thwarted.
Celtic were searching for an initial spark and it was given by Edouard. As Moi Elyounoussi put the ball in the direction of Edouard’s perfectly timed run into the back of the net, the visitors countered with pace and accuracy. He got in the way of Hancko, curved around him, sliced it in, and slipped the ball to the far post beyond Florin Nita.
Unfortunately, just before the half-time break, Celtic’s Achilles heel was once again the hosts’ equalizer.
Jullien headed a corner kick into the air, and David Pavelka flicked the ball back into the box after every Celtic player except Callum McGregor had run into the ball. Three Sparta players were played offside by the lone Celtic player who stood deep, and Hancko got off his feet just in time to shoot in from close range.
Celtic replied, and an Elhamed cross landed at the back post with Ntcham, but from a good place the midfielder shot just wide.
Sadly, the poor defensive work of Celtic cost them again as Sparta turned the game around. Julis was able to drive the ball over the goal line from a few meters after a simple cross from the right by Barek Dockal.
Just before the break, it could have been worse, and lo and behold, it was another free kick that put Celtic in trouble. On the edge of the box, Diego Laxalt given a cheap penalty, Dockal crossed and Ladislav Krejci had a clear run to put a header at the right post of Scott Bain.
Celtic came out of the dressing room knowing that a good second half effort was needed for both them and their coach and it almost worked as Nita brilliantly saved Edouard’s free kick from the edge of the box.
Christie, who in the first half was anonymous on the left, now burst through the middle and fired the free kick that Edouard took just past the far post.
Celtic had been lurking for their opportunity, and he was the right man when it came. Edouard, however, missed the end. He got to the ball eight yards from the goal after an exchange of balls between the striker and Ntcham, but fired harmlessly into Nita’s hands.
As Lennon pressed for the split, Rogic was replaced by Brown, but the pressure spell proved fruitless and the bitter blow came ten minutes from time.
When Karlsson crossed to the unmarked Julis, who volleyed the ball into the net, Elhamed struggled to play a pass forward to Karlsson and Sparta’s deadly duo struck again. For Celtic, how could things get any worse? Well, it did, in stoppage time.
For a long period of time,