Chumpions – The Green and White Locomotive is Slowing Down

After nearly a decade of dominance at the top of the Scottish footballing pyramid, Celtic seem to stagnating and are at risk of falling at the final hurdle, as they aim to win their tenth consecutive Scottish Premiership title. Calum Muldoon looks at what could be stopping Celtic from reaching their ultimate goal.

Despite going into Thursday night’s Europa League fixture as firm favourites, Celtic were left embarrassed at full time after conceding four goals to Sparta Prague.

As the final whistle brought about an end to a dismal Thursday night at Parkhead for Celtic, a sense of concern loomed over the east end of Glasgow. As the Scottish champions faced yet another defeat in Europe, questions over the likeliness of ‘ten in a row’ grew.

Although Celtic were the odds-on favourites to win against Sparta Prague, the 4-1 defeat was not exactly a surprise. Having only won a single game since early October, Celtic face tough challenges ahead. With a European run virtually dead in the water, all Neil Lennon and his men can hope for is domestic glory and even that looks murky, with rivals Rangers leading the Scottish Premiership, nine points clear of their city rivals. So, the question is, where did it all go wrong? What could have happened to bring a team off the back of their ninth consecutive title down to bottom of their Europa league group and trailing in the premiership? Turns out, it’s been coming for a while now.

When you look at the Celtic team that faced Prague last week, you immediately notice clear talent. From Odsonne Edouard’s natural ability to find the back of the net, to Jeremie Frimpong’s quick breaks up the right side of the pitch, the team is full of great players. It would be hard to envision that this team has only won one of their last six games. So, what could possibly be the issue? Simply put, there’s a lack of passion.

In the last few months, it has become apparent that the players’ work ethic has dropped drastically and Thursday’s Europa league defeat was quite possibly the clearest example of this. With defenders being slow to challenge the Czech club’s attacks, it left goalkeeper Scott Bain alone to face the brunt of the assault. Shane Duffy was one of the main culprits after being embarrassed by skilful former Kilmarnock player David Moberg Karlsson. Frankly, Celtic’s main issue was that they were slow to shift into a defensive mindset and merely dawdled back to combat Prague’s dangerous counters. You could say the same stuff about Celtic’s defeat in October’s Old Firm contest and their loss to AC Milan. It is simply too easy to break Celtic down and as soon as that happens, the players panic and make even more amateur mistakes and we will probably see it happen again.

After a solid couple of games at the start of his Celtic career, things have quickly nosedived for Shane Duffy, with the defender going under intense scrutiny for his lacklustre performances.

If it does reoccur, Lennon will make the usual comments of “there was no hunger to win,” fans will feel let down by the club for a few days and return to the sense of hope they retain week in, week out. Even after crashing out of the Champions League, Lennon tried to make a change to his usual excuse of “no hunger” by telling players who do not have the will to win to just leave – their fortunes since then have not turned around and no such player left, showing the problem is much worse than believed.

Nothing will change for the club unless chairman Peter Lawwell makes it happen. The last big shake up at the Glasgow club came in 2010, when Celtic got rid of thirteen players and brought in a slew young talents who have since become club icons like Gary Hooper and Beram Kayal. It may well be a good idea to have a similar sort of rebuild. However, with 2020 being the year that it is, the finances will probably be unavailable to make the revolutionary changes needed to secure the club’s future aspirations.

COVID-19 has badly impacted football as a whole; especially Scottish football. It is projected that lower league teams will lose out most of all, as many rely on having fans in stadiums, with ticketing making up a large chunk of revenue. It is believed that gate money makes up 43% of an SPFL team’s income. Even Celtic have been affected, with players taking a pay cut to save jobs within the club.

It could also be argued that the lack of fans has impacted their performances too. Celtic Park is infamous for the noise it generates in big games, with legendary players like Lionel Messi and Gianluigi Buffon stating that the atmosphere there is the best they have ever encountered. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Celtic have not been able to have any fans in to watch matches since March and without that overwhelming sense of support that is generated by 60,000 people cheering for you, motivation levels are bound to be affected. However, times are different and as a professional you have to adapt. Celtic are not the only club having to play behind closed doors – every team has been ordered to do so. Rangers are on form and they’ve had to go without fans for the same amount of time, showing that this abnormal display by Celtic cannot be blamed on an empty stadium.

Perhaps Celtic’s performance was affected by COVID-19 in another way – through Boli Bolingoli. The Celtic defender was loaned out to Istanbul Basaksehir after breaching club and government guidelines by travelling to Spain. The situation could have shaken the team’s confidence and trust in each other, and performance levels dropped following the move, which was shown in their premature exit from the Champions League to Ferencváros. While it would be easy to blame the loss solely on Bolingoli’s exit, he had only played fifteen games and had struggled to make an impact since his arrival at the Scottish club in 2019.

It was potentially the postponement of Celtic’s next two matches by First Minister Nichola Sturgeon which took a toll on the players’ match readiness. Without any games for two weeks and jumping straight into a Champions League qualifier, confidence is bound to be impacted, meaning this downwards trend in performances could quite possibly be regarding this.

The issues with Celtic run deeper than expected. They have now lost three home games in a row which they have not done in 30 years. The last time this happened, the team finished fifth in the Scottish Premiership that season, trailing league winners Rangers by 17 points. Although a repeat of that is slim, this new record should still serve as a dire warning to the club. There is no single reason for this recent poor form. There never is in this situation. However, there seems to be a melting pot of explanations for the failures of this season so far. Whether it is player motivation or COVID-19 for the lacklustre style of play coming from Lennon’s team, it should be evident to the board and the manager that this situation cannot go on any longer if they want to achieve their dream of ten titles in a row. If whatever issue is not resolved this season, Celtic’s aspirations for the coming years are not as bright as they’d hoped them to be.

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