By Ryan Fleming
Neil Lennon didn’t foresee his inaugural season with Celtic starting the way it has.
After getting tossed out (and I mean tossed) out of the Champions League by FC Braga, followed up by a humiliating defeat to Dutch side FC Utrecht in the Europa League, thereby eliminating them from European play, the Hoops turn to the SPL – where this season’s focal point should have been anyway.
For Lennon and his score of new signings, they’ll have to look past the disappointing free fall, that thankfully for the former Celtic midfielder, didn’t carry into the start of the SPL season.
Out of the gate the Hoops started much like they planned. Salvaging an away 1-0 win to Inverness gave Celtic fans fake optimism going into their Champions League home tie with Utrecht. Quickly, though, things went bad.
Celtic topped the Dutch side, 1-0, at Celtic Park, but then the team was embarrassed 4-0 in Holland.
In one of Celtic’s worst European showing, fans and pundits immediately question Lennon’s moves, his ability and his nerve. Despite the harsh words and lack of backing by the supporters, the Northern Irishman carried on.
In its next three league games the Hoops outscored their opposition 6-1 with class showings from James Forrest, Shaun Maloney and Paddy McCourt.
With the departure of Aiden McGeady to Spartak Moscow, the revelation of Forrest is especially glamorous for Celtic fans. The short, speedy winger looks to be similar to McGeady in many ways and proves deadly in the attack and a cause for concern in opposing managers. Unlike McGeady, Forrest always seems to have that extra burst, that little more of whatever is needed, which McGeady lacked.
While Celtic maintained their spotless record in the SPL, their rivals, Rangers, were doing much of the same. Led by Kenny Miller and newly signed Nikica Jelavic from Rapid Vienna, the Gers seem to be leading the way rather than playing catchup with their heated rivals. While both teams seem similarly talented, the race for the SPL title could go down to the wire yet again.
“This could be one of the greatest title finishes in history because I see Celtic and Rangers winning much more than they’ll draw, never mind lose,” said former Celtic great, Chris Sutton, to the Daily Record. “It’s going to be a test of nerve, but good for Scottish football.”
Sutton is right. The race between rivals only makes the league more appealing, putting the spotlight on Scotland’s “premier” league, which is behind the more glitzy leagues such as Spain’s La Liga or the German Bundesliga.
Celtic are most recently coming off an unimpressive 2-1 win over Hibernian with newly-acquired, former Hibs striker, Anthony Stokes getting his first taste of league action for his new team. Chances were being handed over by both teams, with the other seemingly saying, “No, thanks. You can have it.” The Hoops will admit that they got away with three points. Three points that are more crucial than in most leagues.
Despite the premature callings for the banishment of Lennon, the questioning of his managerial ability and the players he brought in, Lennon has led the Hoops to 14-straight league wins – a feat worth mentioning in any league.
Ryan Fleming is an editor and contributing writer for The Soccer Guys. He can be reached at Ryan.Fleming@thesoccerguysonline.com.