Firepower lacking as Celts scrape through

The emotion of relief was etched across Neil Lennon’s face as the full time whistle resonated around the Borås Arena, sealing Celtic’s safe arrival in the Champions League playoff round. A scrappy 0-0 in Sweden was enough to cement a 1-0 aggregate for Celtic over Swedish champions, Elfsborg. 

Celtic have started the season well on paper and are on course to reach the Champions League group stage as planned, but despite this, unconvincing victories have led sections of the Parkhead faithful to become concerned at the depth of Lennon’s squad, particularly in the attacking areas.

The Glasgow giants cruised past part-timers Cliftonville as expected, narrowly defeated Ross County on the opening day of the season, and secured the narrowest of aggregate wins over Elfsborg, a side that currently languish in 4thplace in the Swedish top flight. Yes, Celtic are winning, but whether or not they can continue to successfully pursue a place in the Champions League group stage with the current crop of forwards is in serious doubt.

During the 0-0 draw with Elfsborg, Celtic recorded just two shots on target. The isolated figure of Georgios Samaras, despite now being something of a fan favourite, looked ineffective. His 69th minute replacement, Anthony Stokes, was similarly foiled by the resolute Elfsborg defence. In a familiar way to all the other games so far this season, heads turned to Kris Commons to provide something special on his own, and on this occasion, he failed. On occasions like this in the past, all too often Neil Lennon’s men were bailed out by their prolific striker, Gary Hooper. Hooper scored goals in all competitions, and was as much of a threat to the likes of Barca and Spartak, as he was to Dundee and St Mirren.

The Englishman found the net 31 times last season for Celtic, and his £5.5m switch to Norwich has left Lennon with a significant spot in his team to fill.

Hooper’s departure sits nicely with the club’s overall, buy cheap, develop, and sell on policy, but only if another viable developing replacement is in place at the time.  

Celtic have done brilliantly to get £5.5m for Hooper, £12m for Victor Wanyama, and now reportedly £2.5m for Kelvin Wilson, but when these departures come without active replacements, the club’s business strategy comes under threat. In layman’s terms the club’s business strategy, by virtue of the absence of the type of money bequeathed to the English Premiership clubs, appears to hinge on the repeated delivery of these three goals: 

  • Reach the Champions League group stages every year (i.e win the league and qualifiers)
  • Keep the fans interested with an entertaining product for the majority of the year
  • Continue to be shrewd in the transfer market, develop players and sell on for profit

Without replacing these big players, particularly in attacking positions, the first and second goals become exponentially more difficult. True, given the absence of Rangers in the Scottish Premiership, a shift in transfer policy can be expected to some extent, but with the resources available at Celtic, a gulf of chiasmic proportions should still be apparent between them and the rest of the country’s top flight. 

Lennon speaks to the BBC moments after qualifying for the Champions League Playoff

The Champions League playoff will be the toughest set of matches of the season so far for Celtic, and without a striker with the ability to score 30 goals a season in the squad, Celtic could well flounder. 

Historically, Celtic have always seemed to come up trumps when it comes to obtaining forwards capable of scoring goals  (in a similar way to how Rangers often seem to have relative ease in procuring a top-drawer goalkeeper, season after season). Not always a 53 goal a season Henrik Larsson; in the past we’ve seen the likes of Scott McDonald rattling in 31 in a season. Sometimes the big ticket signing isn’t required, it’s just a case of spotting a potential goal scorer.  

Hooper apart, this seems to be a skill that’s eluded Neil Lennon during his time in the Celtic dugout. The Northern Irishman has signed up several forwards, and for a variety of reasons, most of whom haven’t illuminated the league with their goal tally. The endeavour of Samaras is admirable, but he isn’t a natural goal scorer. 

Lennon has gone on record as saying he doesn’t think Anthony Stokes is “Champions League material”, and the likes of Tony Watt, despite his heroics against Barcelona last season, still has much to learn before he could be considered to be the finished article.

You’d also forgive the fans for being slightly apprehensive about Lennon’s choice of transfer targets to fill Hooper’s boots. It’s early days yet, but Amido Balde looks as though he hasn’t impressed his manager. He looks to be little more than a cumbersome bench-warmer. There’s no question over his fitness, so it would appear as though he’s deemed as third or fourth choice striker at the moment based on training ground performances. 

Parallels could be drawn with Balde’s situation, and other strikers that Lennon snapped-up; Miku, Lassad, Mo Bangura, Pawel Brozek, and Darryl Murphy to name but a few. 

The Hoops boss’ record for procuring quality goal scorers appears to be questionable at best when you see the list of failures above. The countdown to the transfer window slamming shut is well and truly on, and the names of two strikers appear to be cropping up in the rumour mill over and over again: Kevin Doyle of Wolves, and Alfreð Finnbogason of Heerenveen. Doyle looks like the far more likely signing, given his willingness to join, and Wolves’ willingness to sell. The Irishman, despite being a tireless worker, is far from a goal scorer. His record of 27 goals in 135 games (around 0.2 goals per game) is hardly awe inspiring, even when compared to Celtic’s other strikers. 

The likes of Samaras outperforms him in a Celtic shirt, scoring 48 goals in 156 games (0.31 goals per game). Stokes too boasts a better record, finding the net 33 times in 82 appearances (0.4 goals per game), and even the much maligned Harold Brattbakk’s Celtic record compares favourably to Doyle’s, as he scored 12 in 44 (0.27 goals per game). 

Herenveen’s Icelandic striker Alfreð Finnbogason looks as though he could be an ideal replacement for Hooper. He’s just 24 years old, so resell value becomes a factor, and scored 28 goals in 33 games last season (0.84 goals per game). He managed to find the net twice in Herenveen’s opening Eredivise match at the weekend too, but a hefty touted price tag of £7m puts him well out of Celtic’s price range, if the transfer policy of recent seasons is anything to go by.  

Lennon’s next move had better be a good one. A healthy compromise, somewhere between a Doyle and Finnbogason could be enough to do the business in the Champions League and win favour with the Celtic fans, but the clock is ticking, and you can be sure that all top European clubs will be sniffing around for a 30-goal a season striker. Now, more than ever, the lack of a cerebral, ruthless striker at Celtic Park is apparent. Perhaps the urgency and importance of the situation will bring clarity to the Celtic boss and help him find the player he needs. 

The fans can only wait and hope. Over to you, Neil.


Why Gary’s Jumping Through Hoops to be Lennon’s no.1 Striker

By Johnny Connelly

With no Rangers in the SPL, Celtic unquestionably have an easier route to retaining the title. Despite the benefits of this, it does create another issue for Neil Lennon’s men. Keeping a whole squad of players performing at their best becomes difficult when the consequences of dropping points are exponentially less severe.

Even at this early stage in the season, (despite a few instances of complacency) Celtic’s quality has shone through, and only a great fool would bet against the SPL trophy staying at the Parkhead club’s trophy cabinet.

Given Lennon’s relative lack of experience in the dugout, many have questioned his ability to handle the problems that face a huge club like Celtic. That said, the way he’s managed to tackle this most recent issue is nothing short of remarkable.

So, the million dollar question, how do you keep players performing at their best when your biggest rival is no longer breathing down your neck? Or in a more universally comparative way, what do you do when your biggest external competitor disappears?

The answer?  Simply introduce more internal competitiveness.

Lennon has illustrated this ethos beautifully raising the stakes when it comes to competition for places in his starting XI. This is how Celtic will succeed and flourish without Rangers, and it’s already bearing fruit in the form of a resurgent Gary Hooper.


Is it a bird? Is it a plane? – No, it’s Hooperman

Hooper netted the opener for the Bhoys against Motherwell on Saturday, taking his tally to 8 for the season already. This time last season, even with Rangers in the league, it was December before Hooper reached this tally. I put this down to increased competition for places.

At the start of the season, Celtic’s striking options were less considerable. Hooper was the main man, usually partnered with Stokes. The only real competition was from Georgios Samaras and Tony Watt. Samaras was and is playing the best football of his career, but is more effective as a winger. Watt too looks promising, but at just 18 years of age, will be used sparingly.

Lennon must have looked through his squad list and saw few other alternatives. He chose to loan out the cumbersome Darryl Murphy, youthful James Keating, and the flop that is Mo Bangura. Had this been left the way it was, I believe Celtic would have been subjected to a lesser Gary Hooper than the one that’s tormenting defences currently.

Enter Miku and Lassad Nouioui. Two experienced strikers to give Hooper a much needed boot up the backside in training every day. Over the last few seasons, if Hooper’s form was below par, he’d still start (more often than not). This season will be different. He’s widely regarded as Celtic’s best striker, but this time around, if his form drops, he’ll find himself on the bench.

Hooper notched up 29 goals last season in 50 appearances, (58% conversion). This was his second highest ever return, just 1 goal off his career best. This season so far, his record is 8 goals from 12 games, a marked conversion improvement at 67%.  On the basis of these current figures, and the fact that Hooper will soon be hitting his physical peak as he turns 25 in January, Lennon will be hoping his man will manage around 34 goals this season.

Celtic’s central midfield too has long been feeling the benefits of a healthy competition. Lennon has a plethora of options available to him in the middle of the park. Victor Wanyama, captain Scott Brown, Joe Ledley, Beram Kayal, and Filip Twardzik all fit there naturally, while the likes of Charlie Mulgrew, Kris Commons, and Paddy McCourt too can slot in if need be. This wide choice has made Celtic’s midfield the strongest area of the team, and allowed the club the luxury of being able to sell on a player like Ki for £7m, a healthy profit without weakening the team.

Lennon has quietly applied the same logic to the forward line, and arguably the back four with the addition of Efe Ambrose to the team. More or less the whole squad now knows that they are not bomb proof, and their place in the squad is not guaranteed. Possibly Fraser Forster and James Forrest are the exception to this rule currently, but given the nature of Lennon’s past dealings, it’ll only be a matter of time before they also find themselves having a sterner test in training to justify their selection.

This policy of increased competition for places has proven successful, but it a work in progress without question. This season won’t see a record points total for Celtic, and it’s unlikely to be one that’ll feature heavily when the complete history of the club comes to be written. What it will be able to boast though is that it’ll be a successful season both on and off the pitch. Financially the club is being run in a prudent manner, the fans will be entertained and see their heroes play against the finest teams in Europe, and the players, under Lennon’s shrewd setup, will be assured that only the best performances will merit their next opportunity to pull on that famous green & white jersey.

As Jock Stein once said, “Celtic jerseys are not for second best, they don’t shrink to fit inferior players”, and Neil Lennon’s competitive squad will ensure that Gary Hooper and the rest are no exception to this.

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