Europe is everything and nothing for Neil Lennon – his priority being to claw back a woefully conceded 12 point SPL disadvantage. But European performance sits higher in the Celtic psyche than for the average Europa League club. On paper, non-Premier League forays are nothing more than a financial bonus; and a chance for the club’s young starlets to experience different footballing strategies and cultures, part of their own learning development.
For Celtic, it isn’t as simple as that. Competitively a moot challenge, an embarrassing result will undermine Lennon’s flagging credentials as manager. It’s difficult to say how close to edge he peers, but for many fans he’s already dropped into the abyss.
While many areas of the side are well below-par, perhaps it’s Lennon’s defence that has been the source of so much disappointment. Just when the trio of Charlie Mulgrew, Mark Wilson and Thomas Rogne had appeared to stem the cascade of cheap goals, the three miss out – the former pair due to injury, and the latter due to having not made Celtic’s European squad.
Lennon had singled out three players as being exempt from criticism regarding poor recent form, two of whom are doubtful for tonight: Ki Sung-Yeung (virus) and Joe Ledley (calf). With Badr El Kaddouri cup-tied and Emilio Izaguirre and Mo Bangura out long-term, this makes for a ramshackle match squad.
Therefore, the back-line almost picks itself: Glen Loovens should return from injury to partner Daniel Majstorovic at the back, with Victor Wanyama the only feasible other option. Adam Matthews is likely to continue at left-back, with Cha Du Ri on the right, but the lack of options is a worry.
Predicting the midfield and forward lineup is far trickier – if injuries don’t dictate who plays, form will. Gary Hooper’s place in the side looks increasingly perilous having looked poor of late and the returning Georgios Samaras waits in the wings. The Greek has often been used on ‘the big occasion’ by Lennon – especially in a lone role, but Anthony Stokes surely expects to play.
On paper, there should be four central midfielders available in Ki, Ledley, Beram Kayal and Wanyama, but it’s expected that either Ledley or Ki will feature elsewhere – and Lennon has options.
Will it be a return to the 4-2-3-1 that’s been trialled briefly this season – matching Rennes expected system? This allows Kayal, Ledley and Ki to play centrally (albeit with Ki further forward than necessarily comfortable). Would also facilitate James Forrest in his best position on the right, and one of Kris Commons or Samaras (or even Anthony Stokes) on the left.
Like in the previous match against Rennes, Lennon could even name an almost identical starting 11, with Ledley dropping to left-back, Wanyama in midfield and Matthews on the right.
While Hooper would have to be left on the bench, this solves Lennon’s problem of getting as many players as possible in an ideal position, without compromising in midfield bodies. The system worked well in France and save for an embarrassing own-goal, Celtic could’ve taken the win.
The outside bet would see Lennon reverting to an incarnation of the relative sanctuary of his lop-sided 4-4-2. Commons – the most important player in the system – is fit again (although Forrest more likely to start), and when Celtic have looked comfortable and in control this season, this has been more frequently the system.
It also (for what it’s worth) avoids the stigma associated with switching to a defensive, reactionary setup at home (people might scoff that this matters to the manager, but it’s a theme that once irked Gordon Strachan) and also allows for two strikers being on the pitch. A 5 man midfield of some kind remains more likely, with the 4-1-2-1-2 (4-4-2 diamond) as recently used against Udinese to be considered implausible.
Frédéric Antonetti will sympathise with Lennon. The pressure inFrancehas been increasing upon him, with an embarrassing exit in the French Cup at the hands of Ligue 2 outfitLe Mans, and latterly a squalid 1-0 league defeat in Toulouse. There’s also the sense that circumstance and chance has conspired to short-change his side, having picked up only 2 points from 9 despite impressive performances against Atletico Madrid and Udinese.
The similarities don’t end with poor-form, as the injuries mount. Key winger Jires Kembo-Ekoko has been injured since October 23rd, joining defenders Onyekachi Apam, Jean-Armel Kana-Biyik (injured againstToulouse) and goalkeeper Cheick Ndiaye in the treatment room. Centre-back Biyik especially, is a problematic loss as like againstToulouse, midfielder Georges Mandjack is expected to try and plug the gap.
Central defence aside,Rennes enjoy a relative embarrassment of riches with at least two quality players in almost every position (albeit it will prove difficult to replace a player of Ekoko’s ability).
Antonetti will stick with Rennes’ trademark 4-2-3-1, and there are probably only two major questions: Will the highly rated midfielder Yann M’Vila play and who will start up front? The manager has recently spoken of the importance of this Europa League campaign – and like for Lennon a poor performance will do far more damage to confidence and reputation than to any competitive purpose.
Victor Montano until recently had been the first-choice striker, but Youssof Hadji (brother of the Mustafa Hadji who in Montpellier, single-handedly kicked Scotlandout of the 1998 World Cup) is breathing down Montano’s neck. Against Toulouse in fact, it was Hadji who began as the lone striker, with Montano utilised (in Ekoko’s place) on the flank.
In a way Celtic’s “enforced” choice of centre-backs can force a more favourable tactical situation for Lennon. His ideal strategy has the centre-backs pushing high up the park, which may work with quality defenders (or Rogne/Mulgrew) but comprehensively does not work with Loovens (exposed once by Kenny Miller) or Majstorovic (Sion red-card).
Rennestoo, prefer threading quick balls behind the defence – mostly through the superb technique of M’Vila or the creative eye of Julien Feret. So being forced into a deep defensive line denies Rennes that space behind to exploit.
A constant throughout the red-and-black side, is highly mobile, strong defenders. From the two deepest midfielders (even the attackers on the wing) down to the back four – tenacious, accelerating and tough to beat.
The down-side perhaps is their positional awareness – particularly with the unfamiliar defensive line. Toulouse were able to run the ball into dangerous areas, drag defenders out of position and pass their way (on the deck) to a position of authority. Defensively from set-pieces, Rennes have not really impressed. Benoit Costil isn’t comfortable coming for crosses,Toulouse scored the winner from a poorly defended free-kick and last encounter Ledley was easily able to rise above a taller, stronger defence to score. It’s a bit of shame as Celtic’s offensive (indirect) set-pieces aren’t a strong point either.
Essentially, it’s the Rennes defence that has to be exploited. James Forrest needs to justify the Tottenham interest, Georgios Samaras has his own demons to dispel, Commons needs to prove on the pitch that there’s no ill-feeling with his manager, and Hooper and Stokes quite simply need to be attempting more chances. Scoring goals is not the true problem right now – it’s chance creation; an apt ending as it’s also Lennon’s chance to earn some leverage.