Celtic stuttered to a 2-1 defeat at Rugby Park against Derek McInnes’ Kilmarnock side yesterday, and it was a performance bereft of the desire, hunger and tempo that have been hallmarks of the Parkhead side’s last two campaigns.
Brendan Rodgers’ league-leaders passed up plenty of big opportunities in the first-half but eventually took the lead through Matt O’Riley as the Dane latched on to Callum McGregor’s rebounded effort to take the Hoops into the break a goal up.
Kilmarnock kicked up a storm for Celtic in the second-half as they fought back to win the game. An own-goal from Nat Phillips pulled the home side level before a late clincher from Matty Kennedy saw Killie defeat Celtic for the second time this season.
There is no doubting that it has been a real Jekyll and Hyde campaign so far for Brendan Rodgers’ side, but what has been the cause of the all-too-frequent poor performances?
Kilmarnock 2 Celtic 1 // 10th December 2023 // Scottish Premiership
Phillips off his game
The Liverpool loanee was far from his best against Kilmarnock. Brendan Rodgers brought him back into the starting XI for just his fourth start since joining the club back in August. The gaffer was adamant pre-match that Nat Phillips could “come in and do a great job” and, although he was steady in the first-half, he looked completely lost and out of his depth in the second period.
English Premier League and Champions League experience made Phillips seem a smart signing as an emergency option, but he couldn’t handle the Kilmarnock press on Sunday and panicked every time the opposition hurried and pressed him. He gave up the ball time and time again which meant Celtic struggled to really build out from the back, and the own-goal for Kilmarnock’s equaliser really summed up what was a second-half to forget for the Englishman.
Phillips will most likely return to Liverpool in January, and if Rodgers doesn’t rate Maik Nawrocki or Gustaf Lagerbielke ahead of him then another new centre-back could even be on the agenda.
Carter-Vickers is still as important as ever
With Celtic’s defence floundering in the second-half, it really emphasised how important the American is to the success of this team. His calm and composed head when the going gets tough would have been vital against a rejuvenated Kilmarnock.
Carter-Vickers restores confidence in those around him and it is no coincidence that Liam Scales turned in his worst display of the season to date without his usual partner alongside him.
The former Spurs man only missed the game as a precaution and will most likely return to his usual defensive berth against Feyenoord.
First-team ready signings needed
Greg Taylor’s performances this season have come under scrutiny and, once again, he was really poor today as Danny Armstrong had his number for the entire ninety minutes.
The left-back position was somewhere the club were looking to improve in the summer, and expect Brendan Rodgers to look at improving that position once again in January.
A regular feature of Ange Postecoglou’s Celtic side was the strength of the bench. To continue the high-tempo waves of attack, Ange would often look to the quality on his bench for the final third of games.
When Celtic desperately needed a game-changer at Rugby Park, there was a real lack of attacking firepower on the bench for Brendan Rodgers.
Although this is partly due to the injuries of Daizen Maeda and Liel Abada, this dearth of offensive options will only get worse if and when Oh Hyeon-gyu, Kyogo Furuhashi and Daizen Maeda all travel to represent their respective countries at the Asian Cup in January.
Lazio 2 Celtic 0 // 28th November 2023 // Champions League
Celtic saw their hopes of playing European football after Christmas dashed as they lost 2-0 against Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico in their penultimate Champions League group stage encounter.
Celtic had some chances to take the lead, but they were passed up by Kyogo Furuhashi and Yang Hyun-jun before a late brace from substitute Ciro Immobile in the final 10 minutes secured all three points for Lazio.
This leaves pride as the only motivational factor when Celtic line up against Feyenoord for the final group stage game at Parkhead on Wednesday.
Same old story
With every passing game in the Champions League over the last decade, there seems to be recurring failings at this level. Celtic failed to take the clear-cut chances that came their way against Lazio, the first seeing Kyogo through on goal but his tame effort was easily saved by Ivan Provedel.
In the second-half, Yang Hyun-jun, who had a good game, found himself in on goal and the obvious option was to pull the trigger. Instead, his inexperience resulted in the South Korean losing his nerve, as he opted to pass the pressure and responsibility on to Kyogo, who also failed to find an answer.
Substitute Immobile scored the late brace that won it for the Biancocelesti, but both goals were avoidable. Joe Hart was far too slow for the first and Liam Scales was brushed aside with ease for the second.
The team doesn’t seem able to handle adversity at this level. They show too much respect to the opposition and suffer from an inferiority complex. There is an inevitability that, once a goal is scored against Celtic in Europe, another is sure to follow soon after. This is something that has to change if the club has any ambition of progressing in Europe, rather than just being happy to be there.
The Mikey Johnston dilemma
One of the shining lights against the Italians was the substitute appearance of Mikey Johnston. The Irishman is so often criticised so it is important to highlight when he performs well, which he did against Lazio.
The winger played a big part in the momentum shift in the second-half, something that was evident up until Immobile’s goal against the run of play.
Kyogo needs more service
One thing that has been evident this season is that Celtic aren’t getting Kyogo involved in the game nearly enough, and much of this can be attributed to the wide players.
Kyogo’s runs are still being made but he just isn’t being picked out anywhere near often enough. As a team, we are not playing to his strengths, which was evident against Lazio and continued until he was unceremoniously dropped against Hibs.
Given that he had started to find his goal-scoring touch in Europe, Rodgers should ensure that the team do everything in their power to get the Japanese forward on the ball.
Celtic 1 Motherwell 1 // 25th November 2023 // Scottish Premiership
Celtic dropped points for the third time in the league this season, as Stuart Kettlewell’s Motherwell side were able to hold the Hoops to a 1-1 draw at Parkhead.
Rodgers’ misfiring league-leaders were perhaps lucky that Rangers were unable to capitalise on the dropped points as they drew at Pittodrie the following day, but that didn’t excuse the lacklustre display from the Hoops.
Celtic failed to create enough chances, with just four shots on target against an organised and defensively astute Motherwell team. The home side finally found a way through, virtue of David Turnbull’s 86th-minute penalty, but a slack moment late on in the game eventually cost Brendan Rodgers’ side all three points.
Holm and Yang fail to build upon Aberdeen promise
Fans were growing excited over some of the recent displays from the bench from summer signings Odin Thiago Holm and Yang Hyun-jun. The pair are both young, raw talents with bags of promise but they need minutes to realise that potential, and the injuries to the likes of Reo Hatate and Daizen Maeda opened the door for those opportunities to present themselves.
They both shone against Aberdeen in the 6-0 victory before the international break, which resulted in starts for both players against Motherwell. Unfortunately for the pair, both players failed to replicate their exploits against the Dons.
Holm failed to really influence the game which saw him hooked at the break and Yang Hyun-jun wasn’t able to have an impact on the game before he was replaced by Marco Tilio late on.
Should David Turnbull start?
David Turnbull added a different dynamic to the Celtic attack when he took to the field in the 67th minute. He was able to provide the finishing touch from the spot, something Luis Palma failed to do, and grabbed what was his seventh goal of the season and his fourth goal in the last four league games.
Turnbull has yet to start for Celtic in the Champions League since his arrival in 2020, and he could have felt aggrieved at being benched for the match against Lazio in Italy three days after this Motherwell draw.
The midfielder’s passing and close control in tight spaces could have proved pivotal in unlocking the Lazio defence, and his knack for producing clinical finishes from range could have been the difference-maker in Rome.
New goalkeeper required
Joe Hart didn’t cover himself in glory for Motherwell’s late equaliser as he completely misjudged the flight of the corner which allowed Jonathan Obika to pull the Steelmen level.
This wasn’t the first error we had seen from the experienced stopper this season and it was a mistake that proved to be a contributing factor in Celtic dropping points in a game that they really should have won.
Celtic had apparently identified the goalkeeping position as being an area of improvement, but the recruitment team failed to get a new keeper over the line in the summer. By the time next summer arrives, a replacement goalie should be one of the top items on the agenda.
Hibernian 0 Celtic 0 // 28th October 2023 // Scottish Premiership
Celtic stumbled to a scoreless draw at Easter Road against a compact and well-organised Hibs side, much-improved under Nick Montgomery.
The Englishman set his team up to restrict the opportunities Celtic could create. This, combined with a misfiring frontline, all led to the dropped points, meaning Celtic’s gap at the top of the table was cut to five points.
This result also continued Brendan Rodgers’ poor record at Easter Road as Celtic manager, with the former Leicester boss now winless in Leith in four attempts, those matches wielding two draws and two losses.
One thing that was abundantly clear during the Easter Road stalemate was just how tired and leggy the Celtic players looked. Even Daizen Maeda was uncharacteristically anonymous, but it wasn’t just a physical tiredness that affected the players as the mental fatigue would have been troubling them as well.
Having to adjust from a combative battle as an underdog against a European giant like Atlético Madrid to a tricky trip to the capital to face an uber-defensive Hibs team can also have its effects on the players mentally, which would explain the lack of creativity as well as the lack of ideas in Celtic’s midfield and frontlines.
Lack of quality options from the bench
Whilst it didn’t directly hamper Celtic on the day, the lack of any real game-changing options from the bench was clear. Celtic shouldn’t be having to turn to the likes of James Forrest (whilst albeit experienced, is nowhere near his former self) and Mikey Johnston to try and win games.
Following the closure of the summer transfer window, Rodgers stated that he wasn’t satisfied with the business the club had conducted, and that is evidenced by the dearth of options available to him on the bench.
This will be something that we expect the club to address in the winter, especially given that Rodgers has increased the pressure on the board by discussing his frustration publicly.
The enigmatic Paulo Bernardo
Whilst in the previous point the summer transfer window was criticised, Paulo Bernardo has looked in dispatches like a player who could have a real impact on the team.
Signed on loan from Benfica on deadline day, with an option-to-buy clause in that contract, minutes have been limited for the Portuguese midfielder but, with noone else grabbing the mantle in Reo Hatate’s absence, the scene is set for the 21-year-old to grab the starting reins and run with them.
Bernardo’s off-the-ball work has been the real standout but he was showing a willingness to get forward against Hibs, passing up one or two decent opportunities, whilst also showing good defensive capabilities in a performance that should ensure he is given more game-time throughout a busy December.
Celtic 1 Lazio 2 // 4th October 2023 // Champions League
Celtic fell short of the mark in their first Champions League group stage home game of the season as they lost 2-1 to Lazio thanks to a last-gasp goal from former Barcelona man Pedro Rodriguez in the 95th minute.
This meant Celtic would continue to search for their first Champions League home win since 2013, an elusive 10-year wait that fans would have hoped would end this season.
It seemed like the best opportunity to end that winning drought would have been against a Lazio side who hadn’t been doing all that well domestically. As always in Europe, it seems, Celtic came close but fell just short of getting that elusive win.
How often are we rueing the fine margins of Champions League failure?
So often Celtic are the architects of their own demise at this level. Having carved out the highest quality of chances to take the lead against the Italian giants, the Hoops shot themselves in the foot. Two free headers and a tame attempt at a save from Joe Hart lead to the equaliser, then an uncharacteristic error from Cameron Carter-Vickers lead to the late winner.
These mistakes are only going to be weeded out of the team by building up more experience in Europe’s premier competition as well as spending money on higher-quality players.
Kyogo off the mark
The Japanese forward finally broke his scoring duck in the Champions League as he rounded off a simple but brilliant passage of play to put Celtic ahead early on. He took his time in front of goal to ensure he found the net and after being earmarked before the game by ACSOM as a player who needs to step up at this level, he did just that.
He will be hoping that finally opening his account will have a similar knock-on effect to when he grabbed his first derby goal, as the floodgates opened up after his late equaliser in the New Year’s Derby at Ibrox.
Kyogo has proven time and time again that he has the quality to perform at the highest level for Celtic. Why is it, then, that we are refusing to play to the Japanese forward’s strengths? This has resulted in him going seriously off the boil in recent games, culminating in him being dropped for the last two league games. This is a situation that must be resolved, and quickly, if Celtic are to build some momentum back into our league campaign before the visit of Rangers on 30th December.
Palma’s topsy-turvy form
Fans were surprised to see the Honduran on the Celtic bench for the home tie against Lazio, especially after he had scored a terrific goal against Motherwell at Fir Park a few days earlier.
Palma has shown glimpses of a player who could yet become a star at Celtic Park. His issue thus far has been inconsistency. On his game, the winger brings strong running, a deft delivery, and a strike from distance that can outfox the tightest of defences.
Despite the areas of his game that need development, Palma is almost certainly the best of the bunch when the summer transfer window is judged.
JAMES MCKENZIE // Follow James HERE