Do Pukki and Balde just need games?
By Johnny Connelly
As Celtic crashed out of European football this week, much was made of their sloppy defending on the night; but the real issue throughout the campaign has been the lack of firepower in the final third.
Just two goals in their five group games is a worrying stat. That worrying stat becomes an alarming stat when you then remember that one of those goals was a penalty, and the other was a deflection. Whichever way you look at it, Celtic’s attacking presence has been sub-par for the Champions League.
After losing Gary Hooper in the summer, Neil Lennon knew he needed to sign at least one striker. He secured two, Teemu Pukki, and Amido Balde.
Neither player has had a great run of games. They’ve both looked off the pace, and bereft of a killer instinct in the penalty box. This is undeniable, but would a significant run of games in the first team have changed things?
The pressure to succeed at big clubs is huge, and Celtic are no different, but players are only human. It must be difficult coming in from a foreign league and being expected to start rattling in the goals. Admittedly, some players can do it, but others struggle.
One example of a Celt that took a bit of time to settle rolls of the tongue, John Hartson. The big Welshman came to Celtic with a top pedigree, but he too looked out of sorts at the beginning of his Celtic career. Remarkably, it took Hartson 11 games in a Celtic jersey before he found the back of the neck. He then went on to become a legend and a hero for the Parkhead club.
Hartson started each of these 11 games, and his then manager, Martin O’Neill, put faith in the signing he made in order to succeed.
To directly compare Pukki & Balde to a class act like Hartson verges on unfair, but perhaps the issue of faith in your signings does ring true.
Since signing back in August, Pukki has started 9 from 16 games, and Balde has started just 2 from 18 games. From that you could assume that Balde has some way to go before he’s a first team regular, but even Pukki, with significantly more appearances, didn’t get a run of games longer than 4 games, and most of the games he missed have come in the Champions League (the very place he was signed to make a difference in).
Instead, Lennon has opted for the likes of Georgios Samaras, who despite his tenacious attitude, is a left-winger rather than a striker; and Anthony Stokes, who struggles at the highest level.
The Celtic boss seems frustrated with his options, and he’s clearly unimpressed by his summer signings in that department.
After the 3-0 home defeat to AC Milan, he said: “We’ve competed again tonight but just that quality at the top end of the pitch has caught up with us.”
“When the squad’s not as big as some other squads it does tend to bite you.
“If we’re going to look to the future and continue to play in the Champions League, we have to improve with the squad we have now and we have to improve on recruitment as well for next year.”
Celtic can’t go and sign a £10m-£15m, it would make no financial sense, so to try and make the most of a £2m-£3m player is the trick.
There are alternatives. Putting faith in youth, or in domestic signings (would the likes of Billy McKay or Nadir Ciftci really do any worse for Neil Lennon than any of his current crop?) are always options.
Only Lennon will know how he truly feels about the likes of Pukki and Balde. Only he will know in his mind whether he feels any merit in giving them a run of games to prove themselves, or whether they’ll be consigned to the room 101 of Celtic signings.