Celtic suffered their third defeat of the season last night – two of which have now come at the hands of Romanian outfit Cluj. But Neil Lennon won’t have learned much he didn’t already know as a team of fringe players and youngsters were beaten 2-0 in their final Europa League group game.
Already confirmed as group winners, many first-team regulars were rested for this dead rubber. Fraser Forster, Callum McGregor, Ryan Christie, Tom Rogic, Odsonne Edouard and the suspended Scott Brown were all left at home. Christopher Jullien and Kris Ajer were given a half each at centre back while Mo Elyounoussi wasn’t named in the squad having only just returned from injury. James Forrest was never given the call from the subs bench.
Rather unsurprisingly, then, that led to a disjointed performance from the players that took their place. It ended a run of 12 consecutive wins in all competitions (Soccerbase), but Lennon insisted he had “no regrets ” about his team selection, instead stating was pleased to have gotten valuable playing time into the legs of those players who haven’t featured much of late. Far from giving him a selection headache, though, it may have only reinforced his idea of his strongest line-up.
Experienced figures fail to impress
Craig Gordon started for the first time since the end of September and made several excellent saves. But too often his sloppiness on the ball caused problems for his defenders. One misplaced pass in the aftermath of the opening goal was symptomatic of his struggles towards the end of Brendan Rodgers time in charge. The 36-year old bailed himself out on that occasion, but Forster’s stock has never been higher. Now in the final year of his contract, it seems unlikely that Gordon will be at the club next season. He admitted after the game that a departure could come as soon as next month.
Scott Sinclair is another who failed to impress after being handed a rare start. The PFA Scotland’s player of the year in 2017 has faded from the scene at Parkhead after an outstanding first year when he plundered 25 goals (Transfermarkt). The spark and confidence that illuminated that season seems to have disappeared from his game. It would be a surprise to see him feature much more this season given the other options in the squad. Like Gordon, this will almost certainly be his last year in Glasgow.
Leigh Griffiths looked a little brighter as he got a valuable 90 minutes of game time under his belt. He showed some nice touches and clever movement, but a wonky supply line failed to create a meaningful chance for him. His future remains up in the air, though, after failing to even make the bench for Sunday’s League Cup final. Lennon hinted at Celtic’s recent AGM that he may look to recruit in the “forward area” in January which could spell trouble for Griffiths and fellow back-up Vakoun Issouf Bayo.
A glimpse into the future
The unheralded Scott Robertson made his senior debut in central midfield and can be proud of his efforts. According to WhoScored, the 18-year old had the highest pass success rate of any player from either team with 88%. While Robertson was not a name previously on the lips of most Celtic fans, the same cannot be said for second-half substitute Karamoko Dembele. The 16-year old has been the jewel of Celtic’s academy since appearing for the under 19’s aged just 13.
— Celtic Football Club (@CelticFC) December 12, 2019
Lennon singled both out for praise in his post-match comments describing Robertson’s debut as “terrific” and saying this of Dembele:
“We think very highly of him” he told Celtic’s own media. “I wanted to give him some experience. I want to keep him around the team squad because we think he’s a real talent and I wanted to give him a little bit of experience at this level.”
Robertson and Dembele don’t have to look far for inspiration on what they can achieve coming from the Celtic academy. In recent years they have watched Kieran Tierney, McGregor and Forrest all become first-team regulars for club and country. The latter pair have made 255 and 378 appearances respectively in the green and white. Ahead of the busy festive period, perhaps these talented youngsters could be given some extra opportunities at the expense of more experienced, but underperforming members of the squad.