It was debatable to what extent this fixture mattered in the grand scheme of Celtic’s stuttering season. As a club which has become far too interested in domestic glory pursue a record-breaking 10th title in succession, the Europa League has never felt wholly significant. When supporters arrived at Celtic Park on Wednesday to display a banner demanding the sacking of the manager, Neil Lennon, Scotland’s Premiership was the reference point.
With Europa League progression a long shot even before this defeat in Prague, what Lennon could not afford was a heavy defeat. What transpired will only endorse a – routinely vehement and nasty – sense that change is needed in the Celtic dugout.
Sparta Prague’s aggregate success over Celtic now stands at 8-2 over two group games. Celtic’s run stands at just two victories from nine matches. For spells, especially in the second half, Lennon’s team were menacing but the outcome adds fuel to a grim narrative. Self-destruction and the concession of horrendously soft goals continue to offset any steps forward.
It seemed strange to recall that things had started so promisingly for Celtic. Odsonne Édouard, whose disinterested demeanour has been one of several troubling issues for Lennon, 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 with the assistance of Florin Nita’s left-hand post.
Celtic remained relatively comfortable midway through the opening period, Scott Bain having been called into action only to save a Lukas Julis shot from 20 yards. Any legitimate Lennon concern could only stem from the latest inauspicious showing from his captain, Scott Brown, who was handing the hosts far more midfield assistance than required.
Sparta soon raised their level. Celtic failed to clear a routine corner, with David Pavelka stealing in ahead of Brown before miscuing a shot at goal. Hancko, in atoning for his earlier woes, was played onside and gleefully collected before slamming beyond Bain. Generous defending has been a feature of Celtic’s recent play.
The goal that edged 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 Julis nipping in at the back post to score. As Ladislav Krejci [No 36) headed a Dockal free-kick off a post in first-half stoppage time, the Scottish champions were gasping desperately for air.
An Édouard free-kick, athletically saved by Nita, and Ryan Christie’s effort which arced narrowly wide of the post emphasised Celtic’s bullish start to the second period. 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 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 adding a Sparta fourth.