CELTIC 0 ROSS COUNTY 2
CATASTROPHIC Celtic lost their first domestic Cup-tie in 36 games as they crashed out of the Betfred League Cup to Ross County at Parkhead this afternoon.
The pressure has now increased on Neil Lennon, a shell-shocked figure at the end of this inexplicable and unacceptable performance that saw them lose their grip on a trophy that has been their possession for the past four years.
It was a feeble attempt from the holders to prevent a disastrous result with visiting keeper Ross Laidlaw rarely troubled during the 94 minutes against a team lacking ingenuity, fight and confidence. And genuine direction.
Lennon steadfastly refused to change tactics that saw precious little from Hatem Abd Elhamed on the right flank and nothing at all from Diego Laxalt on the left as they hurtled out of their THIRD competition before December.
Knocked out of the Champions League by unseeded Ferencvaros in Glasgow in September, out of the Europa League with two games still to play, 11 points behind Steven Gerrard’s Ibrox side and now dumped out of the League Cup by a team that have not win a solitary match since they beat St Johnstone in Perth on September 19.
And yet they could come to Parkhead, home of the nine-in-a-row champions, and return to the Highlands without their goal being seriously threatened on too many occasions.
The best chance fell to Albian Ajeti who contrived to hit the post when it looked easier to score. Mohamed Elyounoussi knocked a header wide of the target shorlty after coming on and Odsonne Edouard hooked one over the bar from 12 yards as the team fought for an equaliser. Last season, that chance would have been nestling in the net.
The defending at the killer second goal six minutes from time was suicidal and proved the team have not got the collective ability to cope with a simple, straightforward set-play. A corner from the right, a header from Alex Lacovitti and once again Vasilis Barkas was caught looking alarmed and surprised that he should be asked to keep the ball out of the net behind him.
It summed up a horrible display with absolutely no quality on display against mediocre opponents who looked more hungry for the fight.
Lennon will know this is not good enough. The players will know this is not good enough. We all know this is not good enough.
An end of a glittering era on the domestic front came to end with a pathetic whimper. Changes need to be made. URGENTLY.
The heads were already down as the Hoops went up the tunnel at half-time, trailing to Ross Stewart’s penalty-kick in the 39th minute.
Refree Kevin Clancy reckoned Christopher Jullien’s challenge at the near post as a left-wing cross came in with Stewart behind him was a deliberate foul. Seemed an odd decision from the match official, but such is life surrounding Celtic at the moment there was hardly a murmur of protest.
Barkas, making his return to the first team, had a chance to take the spotlight, but he elected to go to his right as Stewart stroked the ball to his left and the Highlanders, against the odds and the run of play, were ahead.
Two minutes later, Ajeti should have equalised when he was clean through on a delightful flick from Tom Rogic with only keeper Laidlaw to beat, but he managed to strike the inside of the left-hand post and, defying gravity, the ball rebounded out and away to safety.
It seemed indicative of Celtic fortune at the moment. And it got worse. A lot worse.
However, it must be admitted they did not help themselves and their general build-up play was not enhanced by Nir Bitton’s continual surrendering of possession.
The Israeli was coming close to a world record of gifting the ball to the opposition and the first-half was coming to a close when he knocked the ball out of play for a shy to Ross County when he was under no pressure whatsoever. There was no surprise when the blundering performer was hooked in the 68th minute. The mystery was it took so long.
The shambolic confrontation highlighted a team without confidence and very little guile, thrust and cohesion as they tried to unlock the Highlanders’ packed and stubborn defence.
Apart from Rogic’s little flick to send Ajeti through, there was precious little imagination from Lennon’s bungling outfit.
Ryan Christie displayed some superb skills in the 17th minute to trick and tease his way through two tackles before he was cynically tripped just outside the box by Callum Morris as he was about to get a clear shot at goal.
Bewilderingly, the referee didn’t think it merited a booking as he awarded the free-kick. Edouard’s low effort was pushed away by Laidlaw.
Christie’s final ball was often off target which is not the form he has shown in his outings for Scotland recently.
Callum McGregor, left out at the start, came on in the 68th minute for the inept Bitton, but he very quickly joined in the malaise by firing passes off target all over the place.
Lennon threw on McGregor, Elyounoussi, Shane Duffy and Patryk Klimala in the second-half, but the team’s shape remained the same as did the resolve of their opponents.
Kristoffer Ajer looked a bang average player on this performance and offered little to the team going forward or defending.
Ross Stewart, playing on his own up front for the majority of the game, was treated as though he was Zlatan Ibrahimovic in his prime.
Scott Brown tired extremely hard and was the one player who rises above criticism. The rest need to take a good look at themselves.
The manager has some crucial questions to answer. NOW!
TEAM: Barkas; Elhamed (sub: Duffy 79), Jullien, Ajer, Laxalt; Bitton (sub: McGregor 68), Brown, Christie, Rogic (sub: Klimala 85); Ajeti (sub: Elyounoussi 68), Edouard.