The shock of a 4-1 home reverse to Sparta Prague would be enough of a body blow for Celtic manager Neil Lennon, but coming after a turbulent month it looks to have the club on the verge of crisis.
Three games without a win in mid-October, one of them a home derby defeat, had the Northern Irishman launching an impassioned defence of his position, incredulous that newspapers had run polls on him being sacked, and declaring that there was no justification for replacing him in the dugout.
Two matches later, a draw against Lille and a Hampden victory over Aberdeen that secured a Scottish Cup final place, Lennon was hailing his players for their “amazing achievement” and paying tribute to their mental strength and ability.
One more game was all it took to put him back on his heels. The result and the very nature of defeat to Sparta showed that any notions that Celtic had turned a corner were misplaced and the focus was right back on Lennon and what the club can do to get back on track in a season that still holds so much promise.
The Scottish champions had failed to win either of their first two Europa League games and though there was disappointment from the support, criticism was reserved with the identity of the opposition a factor. Plenty of teams have suffered defeat to Milan and a draw in Lille is not to be sniffed at.
Sparta were second seeds in the group when the draw was made but were generally considered to be the least dangerous team in the section. That was evidenced when they lost 4-1 at home to Lille before being dismissed by a 3-0 scoreline at the San Siro.
The problem at Celtic Park wasn’t that Sparta raised their game way above that expected of second seeds – in fact they weren’t even anywhere near full strength thanks to injury and illness. The root of Celtic’s problems was that they didn’t play remotely like the group’s top seeds should.
It was a sight familiar to anyone who had seen them crash out of Champions League qualifying to Ferencvaros, or endure setbacks in a number of European games over the last few years.
The forward line lacked true bite, the midfield toiled and the defence was calamitous. After the final whistle, asked to pick over the bones, Lennon said he couldn’t fathom where the performance had come from, just days after easing past Aberdeen at Hampden to set up the prospect of a quadruple treble.
With a trip to Motherwell set for Sunday, when defeat could potentially see Celtic going into the international break 12 points behind Rangers in the league table, it’s imperative that he finds an answer and gets a reaction.
While he didn’t absolve himself of responsibility, the Celtic manager identified a need for “a culture change within the club”. The catch-all term seemed to be about attitude and effort more than tactical revolution or selection shake-ups.
Talking about the need to “rebound” against Motherwell, he said: “Obviously, after a performance like that, you know you will be under scrutiny and under the spotlight.
“Yeah, I need a performance and definitely need a win.”
Not “We need”, but “I need”. After the winless run that saw him defending his record and position, he referred to fans who had expressed unhappiness at his management as “a minority”.
While the stands remain empty it’s impossible to test that theory by measuring decibels, though it’s easy to imagine the sounds of a full Parkhead on full-time on Thursday. But social media can give a clear view of how a section of the support feels.
The idea of a small band of ‘keyboard warriors’ is a thing of the past with dozens of forums now supplemented by podcasts and fan media who present a broad and diverse range of opinions, some just the on the spot reaction from casual fans and others backed by meticulous research and statistics.
Following Thursday’s sobering defeat, most were clear in their opinion that if the manager can’t effect change then changing the manager has to be an option.
The discontent will only grow if Celtic don’t come back with a display of strength on Sunday, and Lennon has been at the club too long not to know that. A long international break with a poor result to pick over would only see unhappiness grow and pressure build.
“It is important to win the game because we have a bit of catching up to do in the league,” he said.
“But we only have ourselves to blame for putting ourselves under pressure.
“With performances like that you are going to be criticised but this time it will be justified.”
There’s no doubt that three points are imperative to keep pace or possibly gain ground on Rangers but at Fir Park on Sunday Lennon’s need for victory might outweigh Celtic’s.