Desmond Kane

Lennon needs time despite struggles

Desmond Kane

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A haircut for the manager then a close shave for his team.

Celtic sit top of the Scottish Premier League on goal difference after a scruffy 1-0 success at Motherwell, an outcome that saw the freshly cropped Neil Lennon snag an 11th straight SPL win as manager.

These are admirable enough returns under the Northern Irishman, even if grizzly happenings in Europe have overridden the club's domestic product.

The frightful 4-0 beating Celtic sampled in Utrecht on Thursday was enough to leave an angst-ridden Lennon tearing his strands out, the sort of gruesome experience which has become commonplace for Celtic at various staging posts around Europe over the past decade.

One step ahead in the SPL, several steps behind in Europe seems to be the general malaise enveloping a peaky Scottish football fraternity when one considers Motherwell, Dundee United and Hibernian have all departed the Europa League before its group stages.

Lennon and his newly refurbished side traipsed back to Glasgow looking like an assortment of waifs and strays after FC Utrecht administered a dose of grim reality.

For their rookie manager, it was every bit as depressing as Celtic's loss to Ross County in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup in April.

It invoked memories of an excruciating 5-1 loss to Neuchatel Xamax in the UEFA Cup in 1991 and the 5-0 stuffing by Artmedia Bratislava in the qualifiers for the Champions League in 2005. The 3-0 defeat away to Braga last month that shredded Celtic's Champions League prospects could be explained away as the first competitive game of an elongated season.

Somewhat startlingly, in such times of decay, there remains scope to be deluded.

Celtic seemed to be unaware of the potency of the opposition. The only conclusion one can pick up from the scattered shards of such a fraught evening is that they never knew what lay in wait for them in Utrecht, which is a damning statement in itself.

These Celtic away trips in Europe turned into joyless nights some time ago, harking back to a time when Lennon played and Martin O'Neill ran the club a decade ago, but nobody could foresee such a chastening experience after a 2-0 win at Celtic Park a week earlier.

The Uruguayan forward Luiz Suarez revelled in 35 goals in the Dutch Ervedivise on his way to earning the title of Dutch player of the year, but came up short when Ajax lost 2-0 at Stadion Galgenwaard in December.

If Luis struggled, then Efrain Juarez was hardly a shoo-in. Utrecht's ground is a protruding, searing little arena. It has been known that some of the Dutch national team do not like playing there because of the fans. Celtic not only lost four goals, they also lost the physical battle.

Celtic did not turn up for a pistol fight with a knife. They turned up unarmed and were pistol whipped.

"Celtic's attitude was disappointing. They looked at us in an arrogant way, as if Utrecht was no big deal and, of course, we didn't like that," commented the Utrecht winger Edouard Duplan, one of a number of similar opinions aired by the Dutch team.

When one analyses the personnel Lennon deployed to get the job done, it perhaps should be of minimal surprise that it all caved in with so much gutlessness.

Knowledge is power. In the unforgiving environs of foreign climes, the uneducated continue to be given short shrift.

A win over Motherwell at Fir Park has applied a soothing balm after encouraging outings from goalscorer Daryl Murphy and the latest left-back Emilio Izaguirre, but the open wounds of departing Europe before the end of August will remain visible for some time.

Several players do not look like they can reach the required levels. Cha Du Ri and Charlie Mulgrew look very much like the days when Mo Camara was deployed at left-back by Gordon Strachan. There is little or no point having a full-back who tears forward, but fails to defend properly.

The sluggish Daniel Majstorovic has the makings of becoming a cult hero in the mould of Enrico Annoni, which is hardly a compliment. When Celtic signed Annoni from Roma in 1996, the Italian club's fans were sniggering over receiving money for the player.

Neither Majstorovic or Jos Hooiveld convince in central defence. Both seem to be hamstrung by a lack of pace.

Then there is the pressing issue of Scott Brown for not pressing tightly enough in Utrecht. Brown was signed for over £4m from Hibernian in 2007 amid much fanfare, but continues to be lost in a mist of machismo.

Having to be removed 10 minutes into the second half by the manager for a fear of being sent off when the side is losing 3-0 is not what is required as a Celtic captain. Brown's place should be under scrutiny, far less his suitability as a leader. 

Lennon deserves time to implement his plans. There seems to be solidity to his statements in relation to some of the whimsical notions drummed up by Tony Mowbray, who seemed to speak better than he thought.

Celtic's victory at Motherwell was not as convincing as Lennon's haircut, but winning remains the measure of any fastidious manager. In disconcerting times, winning ugly will do.

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