Corners are still a fundamental problem
It almost seems inevitable at this point. For years, going back to Brendan Rodgers’ time as manager of Celtic, we have been absolutely dreadful at defending corners.
Any teams attempting to scout us will look at that straight away as an area to punish, and so it proved tonight.
Jullien’s defensive header looked good at first, with Celtic having missed his aerial presence. However, it wasn’t enough, with Callum McGregor’s suspect positioning leaving Sparta’s forwards onside close to goal.
From the ensuing chaos, Scott Brown (who was poor throughout, before being taken off after 66 minutes) failed to block effectively, allowing Dávid Hancko to put away a straight-forward finish.
It looked far too easy for the Czech outfit, and that’s probably because it was.
Real questions have to be asked about Celtic’s ability to defend set pieces. It’s hard not to sound like a broken record, but this is happening almost every game. Who is leading training on our defensive shape at corners? Why has this been an issue for so long?
If we can’t do defensive basics right, we won’t win football matches. It’s as simple as that.
Our defenders refuse to stand next to each other
Celtic haven’t had a settled back line this season, and once again, it’s cost us. Obviously, Jullien’s return is a net positive, but it was clear from the second goal that the pair of he and Kristoffer Ajer are rusty in comparison to last season.
We’ve only kept 1 clean sheet since October 4th, in the Scottish cup victory against Aberdeen at Hampden. For a team of Celtic’s calibre, that’s absolutely shocking.
Prague’s second, as pointed out by esteemed colleague Hamish Carton, looked much like a Scott Sinclair goal against Rangers, where a crisp, defence-splitting pass to the former number 11 evaded the entire defence.
Nostalgia is all very fine and well but recreating that Rangers’ side’s defensive antics in a game of this magnitude was a strange choice.
Ajer didn’t come for the ball when it was right in front of him. Jullien, caught off guard, wasn’t able to stop Julis from convering. Bain was indecisive. Elhamed was nowhere near the action.
Julis’ second had shades of the second goal at Easter Road at the weekend. Nobody in our defence, regardless of personnel, seem to know where to be, and it was a simple counter-attack that put the game beyond doubt, and Celtic out of the Europa League.
It doesn’t matter who you pick at the back, if you’re not encouraging them to keep a line and a cohesive defensive shape, it’s utterly pointless.
It’s still not clear what Ryan Christie’s role is
Ryan Christie does not like playing on the wing. This is established fact, and it doesn’t suit him whatsoever. We were almost entirely unable to create anything from the right-hand side, relying on Laxalt and Elyounoussi’s dynamic movement and hoping for a piece of Edouard’s patented magic.
Eddy’s goal was exquisite, and for the first 15-20 minutes, we looked confident and enterprising.
Ryan Christie, however, toiled through this match and it’s really not his fault. His best role is as a 10, but Lennon put his faith in Ntcham in that position. The Frenchman is a proven talent at the Europa League level but he’s more suited to creating from deeper in the midfield, and it showed, as Celtic struggled to break down Sparta.
In fairness to Ntcham, he was half-decent in spells, switching the ball to free players on the flanks when it became obvious that Prague’s compact defence weren’t going to let anything through the middle.
Much of our attacking play was hopeful more than anything else. Edouard’s second half sitter aside, it was difficult to see where chances were going to come from, and against a team we should absolutely be beating, that’s a huge worry.