Centre-back crisis adds to Mowbray's growing concerns
THE selection of bookmakers' odds for Dundee United's visit to Parkhead today will not include permutations for the Celtic defence, but that will be the subject of greatest speculation for the management and fans on both sides.
Having shipped out two of his three senior centre-backs in Stephen McManus and Gary Caldwell, Tony Mowbray is now deprived of the third -- Glenn Loovens -- through injury.
The manager cannot call upon Loovens' principal replacement, Jos Hooiveld, for the same reason, and Darren O'Dea is suspended.
Mowbray could opt for the inexperienced pairing of Josh Thompson and Thomas Rogne -- aged 18 and 19, respectively -- at the heart of his defence.
However, given that United have already demonstrated the physical power of their forwards in winning 2-1 when the sides met at Tannadice in November, the selection of such a callow partnership would represent a colossal gamble, especially since Celtic cannot afford to lose any more ground to Rangers before next week's Old Firm game.
Instead, he is likely to switch one of his full-backs -- Thomas Hinkel, Paul Caddis or Mark Wilson -- into the middle of the defence, probably alongside Thompson.
The concession of a 4-2 lead in last week's 4-4 draw at Aberdeen was not exactly a trauma but it did restate the difficulties Mowbray faces in trying to effect a wholesale reconstruction while also attempting to maintain a title challenge.
"The individuals in the side at the moment don't bring experience. They don't have the understanding at times of where to stand and when to hold the line, when to clear it," said the manager.
"They are young guys who are going to be very, very good footballers. They are on a steep learning curve, but it will be invaluable to them in the future, I'm sure. You only get experience by playing."
Mowbray has also, however, been at pains to emphasise that the task of defending cannot depend wholly upon the back-four and the goalkeeper.
"Look at some of the goals last weekend, they were set-plays, so it's not just the defence, it's generally defending as a team that we have to do," he said.
"As a side we have to show better concentration for things like second balls. If you break the goals down last week, it wasn't necessarily a central defender not doing his job -- a couple of the players were not alive enough to the secondary period when the ball came back into the box.
"So it's a collective thing. Yes, we should have won the game at Aberdeen and if we had then won against United off the back of that, we would have gone into the game at Ibrox in a pretty confident mood.
"We should've seen out the game at Pittordie and won it quite comfortably, so a potential positive turns into a negative, but they are fine.
"If we win the game against United then we'll go into the Rangers game in a confident mood. I think the players know that we can score goals and enjoy lots of possession and get into goalscoring areas.
"We can give other teams problems. In an ideal world we would have more experienced players playing in the defensive areas but we'll keep going the way we are and if things conspire to go our way, we'll create the opportunities to win.
"We also understand from the game against United at Tannadice that they've got an obvious threat from set plays. They have got big physical players."
Aiden McGeady is also out of the Celtic side because of suspension, but he functions in a department where Mowbray at least has options. (© Daily Telegraph, London)