Sport Soccer

Saturday 18 November 2017

Money men must match Lennon's Euro strides

Celtic will slip back unless purse strings are loosened, writes Roddy Forsyth

Neil Lennon will take charge of Celtic for the 36th time in Europe when they face Barcelona at the Nou Camp next month
Neil Lennon will take charge of Celtic for the 36th time in Europe when they face Barcelona at the Nou Camp next month

Roddy Forsyth

When Celtic step out on to the turf of the Nou Camp stadium on December 11 it will be – we should remind ourselves – their 36th European tie under Neil Lennon in just over three years.

By the end of the evening they will have played two dozen of these matches in the Champions League – in the qualifiers, group stage and first knockout round – inside 17 months.

This constitutes a considerable body of work, both for the manager and a club on the geographical and financial margin of Europe. It stretches back to Lennon's baptism at this level, when his team suffered a 3-0 defeat to Braga in the third qualifying round of the Champions League on July 28, 2010.

Celtic then tried their hand at the Europa League but, despite a 2-0 home victory over Utrecht in the play-offs, they were hammered 4-0 in the return.

By then, Lennon had been in charge at Parkhead for just under six months – three months of which was as caretaker – but even in that short span it was noted that Celtic had been dismissed from three knockout competitions, beginning with the embarrassment of defeat by Ross County in the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup.

The summer engagements in Europe were conducted against a background of significant reconstruction of the team.

Given that his first competitive outings as duly appointed manager saw Celtic out of the Champions League before the domestic season had begun, it does not take an imaginative leap to see why Lennon gets so skittish about the pressure of summer qualifiers.

With 35 ties under his belt, how does the picture look now? The graph shows a slow rise in the success rate, then a peak last year – achieved with the Champions League group-stage victory over Barcelona – then a slip backwards which, although disappointing, is far from calamitous.

It does, though, emphasise that Celtic have reached the end of one cycle and must now take a series of decisions that will define their likely progress for the next three years or so. In the 35 European ties supervised by Lennon, their record reads – won 16, drawn 5, lost 14.

The Europa League campaign of 2011-12 yielded three wins, three draws and four defeats. Naturally, Celtic have done best in the Champions League qualifiers, winning nine of their 12 matches, with one draw and two defeats – the 2-0 loss to Shakhter Karagandy is the only loss other than the 2010 opener in Braga, but those setbacks emphasise the hazards of the qualifying process.

EVIDENCE

In the group stage, Celtic have been bottom seeds in both of their campaigns, so the record of four wins, one draw and six defeats is evidence that they have punched above their weight. On the other hand, the heroics were all concentrated in last season's group encounters, which were followed by the 5-0 aggregate defeat by Juventus.

If it is accepted that the team lacks the quality required to move to the next level – and, at this stage of the proceedings, that would be constituted by a run in the later stages of the Europa League – there has to be a cash outlay. In that respect, Celtic have spare capacity.

In Lennon's first close season in charge, Kris Commons, Gary Hooper, Emilio Izaguirre, Beram Kayal, Joe Ledley and Anthony Stokes were acquired for a total of £5.8m, while the sales of Artur Boruc, Stephen McManus and Aiden McGeady brought in £12.7m. In addition, Fraser Forster arrived on loan and Tony Watt was bought from Airdrie for £100,000.

In 2011-12, Mikael Lustig, Adam Matthews, Victor Wanyama and Kelvin Wilson arrived for the eye-wateringly small outlay of £970,000 (although Mo Bangura was the clunker at £2.2m) while Shaun Maloney and Joos Hooiveld fetched £5.4m. The following summer Forster, Efe Ambrose and Tom Rogic cost £3.9m, with Efraim Juarez and Ki Sung-Yueng sold for £7.5m.

Most recently, Amido Balde, Nir Biton, Derk Boerrigter, Teemu Pukki and Virgil van Dijk saw Celtic part with £11m but still come out ahead because of the £20m paid for Hooper, Wilson and Wanyama.

The figures are heartening for Celtic's balance sheet and their reputation as shrewd judges of added value – and the worth of Lennon, a manager who is steeped in the club's ethos, has yet to be factored into the equation.

He cannot be expected to hang around, constantly attempting to beat the odds against Europe's elite, without some greater latitude in the transfer market and a careful expansion of Celtic's wage structure.

This week and the current Champions League campaign has reinforced the old verity that quality costs – but its absence usually costs more. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Hearts v Celtic, Live, BBC1 Scotland, tomorrow, 3.0

Irish Independent

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