Asked to pick over the bones of a devastating defeat in Champions League qualifying, Neil Lennon admitted his bitter disappointment but defended himself from one particular piece of criticism.
“I understand that people talk about the team selection but I don’t think that had any bearing on the game,” he said.
That’s not a reaction to Wednesday’s shock 2-1 defeat to Ferencvaros, but the Celtic manager’s response to a 4-3 loss to Cluj just over a year ago. History repeats.
The Parkhead side bounced back from that blow to go on a run in the Europa League and continue to rule the roost at home. The work starts now for Lennon to repeat that trick and prevent one dramatic night from developing into a crisis.
A year ago, it was the decision to play Callum McGregor at left-back that raised eyebrows. This time, the decision to start without a recognised striker brought questions before kick-off and will be a major part of the inquest as fans ask why they have suffered such a dismal dumping two years in a row.
It was the absence of Odsonne Edouard through injury that forced Lennon to reshape his team and any manager would feel the loss of the French forward. What was surprising was that the Celtic boss opted not to name a direct replacement at all.
Midfielder Ryan Christie was named as the most advanced central player but recognised strikers Albian Ajeti and Patryk Klimala were on the bench. It was a decision that will keep radio phone-ins supplied with callers for weeks.
Pre-match, Lennon was clear that the attacking pair were both named as substitutes because they weren’t fit to start. In Ajeti’s case, that’s understandable. The Swiss international is a recent recruit and barely kick a ball for West Ham last season. Cameo appearances for his new team have shown he has the potential to be a hit but shouldering the responsibility of a Euro qualifier was too much, too soon.
Klimala’s case is more of a puzzle. The Polish striker joined Celtic last January and has had plenty time to acclimatise. He was praised by his manager during pre-season and played a part in friendlies before the season started. Celtic’s number 11 seems to have a Catch-22 problem: no games without match sharpness, no match sharpness without games.
The selection decision would have been an irrelevance if Celtic had steamrollered Ferencvaros but as events unfolded with the Hungarians taking a surprise lead it was clear that multi-million pound strikers would be better served on the pitch than on the bench.
Ferencvaros had arrived with some confidence, having built up a strong away record in the last year or so under manager Sergei Rebrov. The Ukrainian is no stranger to being part of a surprise package in European football, having played in Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s 1990s Dinamo Kiev side.
Nevertheless, Celtic held every advantage. Hosts in a one-legged tie, they had the more valuable squad, brought in at high cost not just to sweep the board in domestic football but to reach the elite level in Europe.
With that in mind, and having seen Celtic dominate the match by every measure but the one that matters, Lennon struggled to explain what had gone wrong. The goals were explained in standard terms but when reaching for a bigger explanation he insisted his side was good enough but admitted there was something lacking.
Then came a surprising revelation that hints at work to be done behind closed doors at Lennoxtown in the weeks to come.
“There are some players who may want to leave,” he said. “They have made inroads into that in the last six months or so.
“So if they don’t want to be here, we have to do something about it. If they are making waves to leave the club they are obviously not committed.
“We want players committed to the club. I’m not going to go into it but I’m putting it out there because it has been bugging me for a long, long time.”
By and large, a squad that has won everything in Scotland for years should be a happy place, especially with a record to break this season. If there are malcontents who have been a problem for the manager for “a long, long time” then a solution needs to be found quickly.
Granted, every squad will have players unhappy not to be playing, or dissatisfied with their role or contract or wage. But Celtic have already moved out several players this summer on loan or permanently. The players Lennon was referring to seemed to be those who were in the team or squad for a crucial European qualifier.
It’s up for debate whether that trust issue, or perceived lack of commitment was a factor in a defeat where Celtic had every chance to win and were punished for defensive lapses. Regardless, the issue has been identified and announced, and now it will have to be addressed.
There will be plenty of business done between now and the end of the transfer window, with Motherwell talent David Turnbull expected to join Celtic in the next few days and give the manager a boost.
Other arrivals are inevitable, and Lennon has been reluctant to discuss any individuals from the long list of players linked with a move to Glasgow, but the focus may now switch to the Parkhead exits rather than arrivals.
The Champions League exit is shock enough, and comes with huge financial consequences, as well as a red face. In terms of importance this season though, European progress comes in distant second place behind league title number 52.
The pursuit of that prize means Lennon may have to be more ruthless with his squad than they were with Ferencvaros.