Celtic recorded a much needed win over Stade Rennais in the Europa League on Thursday night, having had to come from behind after conceding a cheap early goal from a corner. But Rennes travelled with an even more porous defence, allowing Anthony Stokes to score the equaliser and winner from two careless mistakes.
The burgeoning absentee list (for various reasons) included Charlie Mulgrew, Thomas Rogne, Mark Wilson, Scott Brown, Emilio Izaguirre, Badr El Kaddouri, Joe Ledley, Ki Sung-Yeung, Mo Bangura and Kelvin Wilson. With arguably 7 first-picks there, it’s difficult to overstate how decimated Lennon’s squad was. His bench had to be filled by 4 relatively unknown kids who, unlike Rogne, due to their age/homegrown status were not affected by UEFA’s squad rules.
As predicted in the tactical preview, Lennon ditched his decreasingly lop-sided and decreasingly successful 4-4-2 in favour of a more continental 4-2-3-1. The back 7 players essentially picked themselves being the only available seniors, but the surprise was Paddy McCourt’s inclusion in the crux, number 10 role. Were Ki to have recovered from a virus in time, it’s likely he would’ve started instead, but McCourt was finally given a chance to stake his claim.
Gary Hooper’s omission was less of a surprise, his work-rate and performance levels having riled Lennon of late. In came Georgios Samaras, recently returned from injury to take a place on the left – similar to where he plays for his country.
Could Anthony Stokes be counted on as the lone striker? Is McCourt good enough (and fit enough) to carry-off his unique attacking style at such a high level? Would the hastily thrown together defence be able to resist?
Frédéric Antonetti too had injury problems to cope with, though not on the scale of his opposite number. As expected, Georges Mandjeck deputised in the absence of center-backs Onyekachi Apam and Jean-Armel Kana-Biyik, and without Jires Kembo-Ekoko, the front 3 were shuffled (and rotated) somewhat.
Surprisingly neither first or second choice striker started with Victor Montano and Youssof Hadji afforded a rest. Abdou Boukhari – normally considered a wide-man instead led the line.
Yann M’Vila is high on the radar of Europe’s elite clubs, withFrancenational team coach Laurent Blanc last week describing the midfielder, along with Hugo Lloris, Philipe Mexes and Karim Benzema as the back-bone of Les Bleus – high praise indeed. Having rested M’Vila in the previous encounter, Antonetti couldn’t take the same risk with his prize asset again.
Celtic would have to be wary of the pace of Jonathan Pitroipa and the craft of Julien Feret on either flank, both who would be looking to cut in-wards towards goal in possession, with play-maker Vincent Pajot the focal point ofRennes’ creativity in midfield.
Disastrous opening…. again
How many times this season have Celtic opened a match lethargically? They’ve managed to get away with it domestically, but Sion and AtleticoMadridhave been more ruthless. A second dubious trait is just how uncomfortable the defending is from corners (as displayed against Atletico and Rangers at Ibrox in particular). The two bogies combined allowing the Captain Kader Mangane to open the scoring. The zonal marking system will shoulder the blame, but it was simply poor defending with Majstorovic mistiming his leap, and nobody arranged to block the attacker’s flight-path.
At times this season, Celtic have appeared over-awed by the occasion, almost self-defeatist in nature (not a characteristic one would associate with a side led by Lennon). But a handful of players stood out immediately to buck the trend. Beram Kayal was exaggeratedly tenacious and vocal, Adam Matthews refused to hide or shy from possession and Georgios Samaras provided a constant out-ball.
The three helped inspire a fighting attitude – leading by example, chasing down lost-causes where a match ago the ghost would be meekly relinquished, and the positive thinking was infectious.
McCourt as number 10?
There was a failing in Celtic’s general open-play in that it was designed to get the most of Paddy McCourt in the position behind the striker. But it’s easy to forget how different a role it is from the ‘winger’. It’s not about receiving the ball, putting your head down and steaming ahead (though even still, McCourt sporadically caused enough problems in this fashion), there’s much more subtlety required. It’s about knowing when to provide continuation – spreading the ball to the right areas, or bringing others into play, and about making yourself available in specific areas. He was only on the park for 65 minutes, so not exactly unequivocal evidence, but like Ki the role doesn’t seem to be his most suited.
The second failing was equal and opposite to the McCourt problem – Rennes had much more success in getting the ball to their play-makers feet, and Pajot was able to conjure up some dangerous charges forward, with some clever passing that didn’t quite come-off.
Celtic instead were most successful hitting Samaras with long-passes. Frazer Forster had clearly been instructed to make that diagonal lob, and the Greek’s presence against a smaller full-back was an inextricable piece of the game-plan. It partly explains why (at least initially) in the past two seasons Lennon had avoided the Hooper/Stokes combination – there is really no alternative to playing to their feet.
Though Celtic were starting to believe in themselves, it still took a large slice of luck to actually get back into the match. Benoit Costil weakly parried James Forrest’s shot into the path of Anthony Stokes, who like all great strikers was in the right place at the right time to finish.
And just before half-time, (perhaps) more luck. Forster’s big boot to Samaras was nodded beyond the two goal-scorers, Stokes and Mangane. But the Rennes Captain couldn’t clear, allowing Stokes space in behind. Still with a lot to do, and with Celtic Park holding it’s breath, Stokes finish was clinical.
It was a superb, if energy-sapping half – particularly from Kayal, Matthews, Samaras and Forrest – and Lennon will be buoyed by the application levels.
Second half changes
Losing a goal on the cusp of half-time nudged Antonetti towards making some changes to the personnel, if not the system. This season’s top scorer Montano came on for the ineffectual Boukari, while Tongo Doumbia replaced Alexander Tettey in a straight swap.
Celtic’s front 6 by the early stages of the second-half had already put in an extraordinary amount of effort, and it was evident as the foot was removed from the gas slightly. Rennes grew into possession, and with Pitroipa testing Matthews to the limit, and Montano looking more cutting up front, it was a testing period for the home side.
More concerning for Celtic was the half-time removal of the injured Glen Loovens, and the ravaged squad meant Marcus Fraser – born 1994(!) stepped into a baptism of fire.
He was immediately called into action – keeping tabs on the wily Pitroipa to make an important block from a cross, and looked composed on the ball even under pressure. Majstorovic, now shouldering the collective defensive responsibility seemed to up his concentration and awareness, doing well to help the rookie settle in.
Rennes inability to crack a tough defensive nut (with one diligent anchorman and the bustling fury of Kayal) was a source of frustration. With every failed attack, Rennes introduced a more vicious (or petty) side to their game. Forrest, Matthews and McCourt received a respective late-hack, head-butt (albeit accidental) and raking stamp, but the ref was fairly lenient.
Celtic’s 4-2-3-1 (now with Commons in for McCourt) is an ideal formation for protecting a lead and working on the counter. The exhausted Samaras, Forrest and Stokes were determined to keep pressing high and countering-fast, with the battle-bruised Forrest eventually withdrawn for Gary Hooper. Stokes moved to the right-wing, and the pressing was truly impressive – the sight of Kayal and Stokes pressing at full-pace deep into the opposition third was as unexpected as it was promising.
Even Hooper seemed sharp, confident and inspired – and was rewarded on the counter as Samaras again provided a fine assist.
Rennes were eventually punished for their over-zealous tackling, with Yann M’Vila cutting short a Commons break to earn himself his second booking. He is a superb player, but provided no evidence on the night to suggest he’s any better than an in-form Kayal.
Again, plenty talk of the grand turning-point – probably the 4th or 5th time this season. Lennon shouldn’t buy into the fervour as the team can’t afford another false-dawn. He’s also all too aware of Celtic’s frailties coming back from European duty, having spoken of the sides poor record in such circumstances. The SPL remains the real test and Lennon’s fragile life-line.
The result demonstrates the fine line between success and failure; the typical results of this season and last. Stamping out glaring weaknesses – (i.e. the sluggish starts and poor set-piece defending) then perhaps a difficult comeback from 1-0 down could’ve been celebrated as a 3-0 romp against a very good French side.
While there are a host of positives, Celtic “got away” with the dreadful opening, as so against Aberdeen (and to a lesser extent Kilmarnock), but it’s an inoperable way of opening. Stronger teams or sterner occasions will expose the problem, and there is no room at all for error.