Neil Lennon remains bullish about reviving Celtic’s fortunes after a second 4-1 reverse at the hands of Sparta Prague in as many matches increased pressure on the Scottish champions’ manager. Celtic have won only two of their past nine matches, with defeat in the Czech capital confirming a Europa League exit with two group games still to play.
“I felt we deserved better out of the game and that gives me something to be positive about,” said Lennon. “A few of them are lacking confidence and it’s up to me to stick with them. I didn’t think we deserved to lose 4-1.”
On Wednesday a group of Celtic supporters unveiled a banner outside the club’s stadium calling for Lennon’s removal. Yet the Northern Irishman has thus far retained the firm support of the board. As Celtic pursue a record-breaking 10th title in succession, they trail Rangers by 11 points in the Scottish Premiership but have two games in hand.
Lennon answered “of course I do” when asked whether he believes he can trigger positive change. “I know this group better than anybody,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do in the league but it’s not beyond us, far from it.
“I’ve been in situations like this before as a manager and player. There is no reason for me to believe we won’t turn this around.”
Lennon cited “psychological” issues with his players, with the 49-year-old believing the change in professional routines triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic has negatively impacted on some of his squad. He did concede the Celtic defence appears “unnerved”.
It seemed strange to recall that things had started so promisingly for Celtic. Odsonne Édouard demonstrated his talent with a fine opening goal. The striker collected the ball at the conclusion of a swift counterattack before leaving David Hancko with the sense he had just spent an hour on the waltzers. Édouard supplied a low finish.
Sparta soon raised their level. Celtic failed to clear a routine corner, with David Pavelka stealing in before miscuing a shot at goal. Hancko, in atoning for his earlier woes, was played onside and collected the ball before slamming beyond Scott Bain.
The goal that put Sparta ahead will prove even more of a video nasty for the Celtic defence. Borek Dockal’s low cross from the right somehow evaded two central defenders and Bain, with Lukas Julis nipping in at the back post to score.
Édouard missed a glorious opportunity, 25 minutes from time, to draw his side level having showed a curious lack of composure from Olivier Ntcham’s cut-back. Sparta capitalised on the profligacy. Hatem Elhamed failed to halt a counterattack, with David Moberg Karlsson duly crossing for Julis. The forward, surely not believing his luck, scored his fifth goal in two matches against Celtic.
In stoppage time, Bain marauded 40 yards from his goal; Srdjan Plavsic dragged the ball round him before claiming a Sparta fourth.