Before another night of Europa League humiliation, Neil Lennon had offered the outside world a glimpse of his masochistic streak.
Dismissing any talk of being under pressure, Celtic’s manager claimed he was ‘enjoying’ the adversity of two wins in eight games. He felt motivated by the chance to prove his critics wrong.
There was no way of enjoying this. No way of masking the immense, growing clamour from supporters for the Parkhead board to make a change.
Forward Odsonne Edouard fired Celtic ahead with a fine run and shot in 16th minute
Sparta Prague (3-5-2): Nita 7; Plechaty 6, Pavelka 6, Hancko 6 (Soucek 67); Vindheim 6, Travnik 6 (Krejci 76), Dockal 7, Krejci 6, Hanousek 6; Julis 7 (Minchev 86), Moberg Karlsson 6 (Plavsic 86).
Subs not used: Lischka, Wiesner, Heca, Vitik,Gabriel, Gelashvili, Patrak, Holec.
Booked: Vindheim, Krejci, Soucek.
Celtic (4-2-3-1): Bain 5; Elhamed 5, Jullien 5, Ajer 5, Laxalt 6; Brown 5 (Rogic 66), McGregor 5; Christie 6, Ntcham 5, Elyounoussi 6; Edouard 6 (Klimala 82).
Subs not used: Barkas, Taylor, Duffy, Bitton, Ajeti, Frimpong, Henderson, Hazard.
Man of the match: Lukas Julis.
Referee: Tobias Stieler (Germany).
With their Europa League campaign cut short in deeply embarrassing fashion, Lennon emerged after the game and claimed nothing had changed. Dermot Desmond and Peter Lawwell will be the judge of that.
Beating Celtic these days requires no tactical masterplan. Only patience, and players capable of crossing a football into the 18-yard box from wide areas. An ability to take a decent corner helps, but any corner at all is usually enough. Load a striker or two into the area and it’s easy pickings.
In their last nine games, Scotland’s champions have now lost 21 goals and Lennon’s position might now be untenable. The club directors who don’t want to sack him might now have no choice.
After four group games last season, Celtic’s place in the last 32 was secure. Twelve months since a glorious win over Lazio in Rome — when eight of last night’s starting line-up played — they now sit rock bottom on one point from a possible 12.
Edouard turned the defender inside out before firing his shot low and hard across the keeper
It’s hard to think of a more fitting embodiment of the regression over this season. Whatever personnel, whatever formation Lennon tries now, nothing seems to work.
Home and away against a desperately modest Sparta Prague side, his team lost by a humiliating aggregate scoreline of 8-2. Five of the goals came from striker Lukas Julis, a player barely known by the occupants of his own house.
Before this game, Sparta’s domestic form had fallen off a cliff. After thrashing Lennon’s side 4-1 at Parkhead, they were beaten 3-1 at Viktoria Plzen and suffered a 4-2 defeat at home to Ceske Budejovice.
So, when Odsonne Edouard gave the visitors the lead with a superb individual goal after 15 minutes, the omens looked promising.
It didn’t turn out that way, of course. These days it never does.
David Hancko was left unmarked six yards out to equalise for the home side in the 26th minute
The reasons this Celtic team can’t defend are the subject of fierce debate. Supporters think Lennon’s coaching is the problem. If or when directors lose patience, it will be fascinating to see the response of players who might also have to shoulder some responsibility.
The defending for Sparta’s equaliser after 26 minutes was abysmal. Once again, it stemmed from a corner-kick.
Scott Brown had a poor night and as many questions will now be asked over the captain’s ability to continue as the manager’s. His inability to deal decisively with Christopher Jullien’s unconvincing defensive header allowed David Pavelka to slash a mis-hit effort towards goal. Had Callum McGregor taken a step forward, David Hancko was offside. As the midfielder stood still, the central defender slashed the ball past Scott Bain for 1-1.
How much more hopeful the night had looked when Edouard, restored to the starting line-up, fired Celtic into the lead.
Lukas Julis prodded the ball home at the far post to put Sparta ahead in the 38th minute
A slick breakaway saw Moi Elyounoussi hold the ball up long enough for the Frenchman to time his run. One-on-one with Hancko, he twisted the central defender one way then the other before smashing a superb finish past Florin Nita.
The foundations of any Celtic lead are flimsy these days. And the woeful resistance shown for Sparta’s leveller was only the starter course.
How Julis must love playing against Celtic. In Glasgow, the unheralded striker became the first opposition player to score a hat-trick at Parkhead since Eric Black for Aberdeen in 1983.
He claimed the easiest goal he’ll ever score seven minutes from half-time. The kind you might see in a high-school kickabout. A meat-and-drink low driven ball towards the back post found Kris Ajer wanting, Jullien dozing and Bain all at sea. Julis claimed his fourth goal in three matches and Lennon was left to ask once again why his players can no longer do the basics.
Their saving grace came from the woodwork. The game should have been dead and buried when Ladislav Krejci found himself unmarked in a crowded area only to head a free-kick against the upright from eight yards.
Celtic had fought back from the dead to snatch a 2-2 draw at Hibs and keep their manager in a job. The way they started the second half offered hope of a repeat.
Celtic crashed out of the Europa League to heap more pressure on manager Neil Lennon
Nita produced a strong hand from a thumping Edouard free-kick. But what a glorious chance the goalscorer missed to level the score after 64 minutes. Had Lennon been able to choose a player to receive Olivier Ntcham’s cutback 10 yards from goal, it would have been the Frenchman. Almost surprised by the space he had, Edouard needlessly took the shot first time when he had time to compose himself. A low, weak effort was gathered gratefully by Nita.
Had Celtic equalised then, it all might have been very different.
But their fate was sealed when they were picked off for two catastrophically bad goals in the final 10 minutes.
Sparta knew the chance to attack Celtic’s Achilles heel would arrive. Their judgment and patience were rewarded when Hatem Abd Elhamed blundered badly for the goal which killed the visitors off completely.
With Elhamed guilty of a poor defensive header before missing an interception, winger David Moberg Karlsson motored clear and dinked a cross into the middle for the unmarked Julis to slam past Bain. The fourth rubbed salt in the wounds in stoppage time. Six months ago, Bain was Celtic’s third-choice keeper.
His sudden return to the starting line-up ahead of a £5million Greek international sums up another damning summer of awful recruitment.
As he raced 30 yards from his line to go for a long ball, Srdan Plavsic — a former Celtic target — nicked the ball round the keeper and slotted low into the net for 4-1.