Lennon left depending on Celtic’s bouncebackability

Defeat to Rangers means Neil Lennon is under pressure to deliver improvement.

Lennon left depending on Celtic’s bouncebackability SNS Group

It’s common sense, but also cliché, that after a bad defeat any player or manager will tell you that they want the next game as soon as possible to put things right, get back on track, to bounce back.

After the comprehensive, unarguable defeat to Rangers last weekend, it’s no surprise that Neil Lennon was of the same mind.

The good news for the Northern Irishman is that he doesn’t even have to wait a week to get back in the dugout. The bad news? The side he’ll be hoping to beat for a boost in confidence is Milan, third seeds in the Europa League group according to UEFA but clear favourites to win the section for most observers.

The day before the opening game of the group stages, and a game against European football royalty, should be one fizzing with excitement, anticipation and focus on a match that would generate a crackling atmosphere were supporters allowed to attend on Thursday. Instead, the fall-out from the derby continues and Lennon spent time in his pre-match media conference defending his players and talking about how to deal with disappointment.

He said that criticism in the wake of a derby defeat wasn’t new to him. He also offered the opinion that there’s always a degree of overreaction to single results from fans.

The manager didn’t expand on that other than to look to the next game and a positive reaction but he could well have pointed to last season and a similar situation. Last December the blow of losing to their rivals left a bruise rather than a mortal wound and Celtic made their way to title number nine.

This time it’s different. While last year’s loss was followed by a three-week break, a transfer window and a gentle return against lower league opposition in the Scottish Cup, the calendar is not so kind now.

The mountain that is Milan on Thursday is followed by the formidable peaks of Aberdeen at Pittodrie on Sunday and Lille at Stade Pierre-Mauroy. It’s a trio of games that could either pile on pressure or offer a chance to put the Old Firm game in perspective.

Lennon himself is in the spotlight this week along with his players. Forums, podcasts and social media offerings make it easy for anyone to take the temperature of the support and after Saturday’s result they’ve hit a fever from which they’ve barely cooled.

Tactics, team selection, fitness and attitude have all been scrutinised and with the manager holding ultimate responsibility for all four, some in the Celtic support are wondering if change is needed if the ultimate aim of a tenth consecutive title is to be delivered. This season there’s less leeway than ever before.

A big European performance and result could immediately quash the disquiet, while a repeat of Saturday’s anaemic showing would exacerbate it. Lennon has overseen both in his time at the club.

His critics point to collapse against Copenhagen and Cluj as evidence of his shortcomings but there’s no doubt that any highlights reel of 21st-century Celtic would have the 2-1 win against Barcelona as a major moment.

Lennon clearly sees the visit of Milan as being in that category, even if it is on the slightly smaller stage of the Europa League, and he said on Wednesday that it was up there as one of the biggest matches in terms of stature.

Some might see the Italian side as a faded power and it’s true that they haven’t bothered the new elite of European football in recent years but this year’s model look a step up from recent incarnations.

Gazzetta dello Sport’s Matteo Nava summed up the team’s current position. “The best defence in Europe, an unbeaten streak and first place in Serie A with full points,” he wrote. “These results are not reached by chance. The Milan management is happy with it, the coach is satisfied with it and the players and fans are enjoying it, even though they are aware that in the long run there are much better equipped opponents in terms of the championship.”

Stefano Pioli’s side may not believe they can be league winners but they do have eyes on ultimate success in the Europa League and will be keen to set a marker early on.

It’s a huge challenge for the Scottish champions, facing a side spearheaded with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s experience but with real threat from the more youthful support act. That Celtic’s deadline day signing Diego Laxalt is considered surplus is a good indication of Milan’s strength.

A win for Celtic would be a statement victory, an unarguable demonstration that the side that’s dominated Scottish football in recent years have not become also-rans overnight. But Lennon will also be cautious that there could be few worse games to be facing when needing a result to lift spirits and see off critics.

There will be no atmosphere and no famous roar on this European night at Celtic Park but there will be tension.

“These players are amazing and they have done amazing things and I am confident that they will continue to do amazing things for the club,” Lennon said on Wednesday.

Knocking down Italian giants would be one of those things and be the perfect release to end the pressure at a testing time.