THE criticism of Celtic’s players may have intensified in the wake of the Europa League defeat to AC Milan at Parkhead on Thursday night despite their spirited second-half fightback.

It was noticeable, however, that no condemnation was forthcoming from their manager Neil Lennon.

This has been a difficult spell for the Scottish champions and no mistake; they have lost key personnel to coronavirus and injury, performed poorly as a result and suffered consecutive defeats for the first time in nearly two years.

The fallout among their own supporters and in the media, following the abject display against and 2-0 loss to Rangers on Saturday in particular, has been typically hysterical and considerable.

Lennon, though, has kept his head while so many others have been losing theirs.

The Northern Irishman accepts that his charges have been far from at their best at times in their last two outings. But he believes there is nothing to be gained from castigating professionals publicly in the modern game. Especially when they are getting it tight from so many other quarters.

“I don’t think they deserve it,” he said. “They get plenty of criticism elsewhere. I am there to look after them and protect them. They have been amazing for me. They are a great bunch. They will fall now and again. It is my job to pick them up. They have earned enough credit to be given a bit of slack at times as well.

“Sometimes you can crack the whip, but you can do that privately and you can get a response. You don’t want to do it all the time. I don’t think it’s productive. If you use it every now and again then fine. You are going to lose your temper sometimes. Again, it’s natural.

“To do it publicly? I don’t think that’s the way forward any more for managers, certainly not for this group. We have a real strong bond and a real respect there so, no, I am not going to do anything to try and bring them down.”

Lennon fully expects individuals who have dominated domestically for the past four years to emerge from their dip in form of their own volition in due course without any hectoring from him.

He was certainly encouraged by how they responded to falling two goals down to Milan on Thursday evening after he had switched from a 3-5-2 set-up to a 4-2-3-1 formation at half-time and remains upbeat.

“We will come back stronger than ever,” he said. “Looking at them, they have the bit between their teeth again. We are not panicking. We are staying calm. We have great belief in the players and I think I have every right to believe in them because of what they have done and what they can do.”

The change of system, the move from a back three to a back four in particular, had a significant impact on Celtic’s performance level against Milan and it will be no surprise if the visitors line up that way in the Premiership match against Aberdeen at Pittodrie tomorrow.

But Lennon feels the loss of Nir Bitton, Ryan Christie, Odsonne Edouard and Hatem Elhamed due to Covid-19 as well as James Forrest and Christopher Jullien has been costly for Celtic, and overlooked by many, and is confident their play will improve as they get bodies back.

“We had four missing through no fault of our own,” he said. “Our bubble has been very good, but it can happen. You have seen it with St Mirren, you have seen it with other teams. I think we have been very unfortunate in a really crucial week against two cracking teams that we have lost those players.

“You could be doing everything right and still pick it up. You have to be so careful. Our testing has gone well in our bubble, but we have another international break next month so again that will be something that we will be monitoring very, very closely. It is a blow to lose four quality players through no fault of our own at this particular time.

“Some of the criticism is over-balanced against them. People taking them for granted. What we’re going through at the minute is not normal. It’s not a normal season and that’s a shame for them because they deserve for people to see it and experience it.

“So not only do they have the football challenges and the pressure of that, they have other challenges that every club is going through. Some benefit maybe more than others, but we’re adapting as we go along. There’s a long way to go and we’ve just had a bit of a downturn in performances, but I understand why.

“It’s no different from last season. We made a good start to the league campaign and we lost a game. We lost a game at Livingston last year and our response was great, so we’re looking to get onto a good winning run again and there is no reason why we can’t.”

Lennon admitted he would have loved some socially-distanced supporters to be allowed in to Pittodrie tomorrow, but stressed he can understand why the Scottish government turned down Aberdeen’s request to stage a “test event” with cases of coronavirus rising across the country.

“I would be all for it if we can fans in through the gates,” he said. “It would be great, but I think we are in the midst of a heavy time with the virus again.

“We have to be careful at the minute about letting people into public arenas. At the minute, Greater Glasgow, it’s quite heavy and we are in major lockdown restrictions. We have to respect that.”

Lennon added: “It’s not looking good at the minute, whether it be for football or for society in general. At the end of the day, public health is the most important thing and this virus just does not seem to be deteriorating in the way we’d want it to.

“You can’t be accountable at times for picking up the virus. It’s very easy to catch it and my sympathies go to St Mirren. I hope the players are okay.

“It’s been a major concern for me as a manager with the three players we’ve had pick it up.

“You just don’t know how people will react to it. It doesn’t matter how fit they are, it can affect a lot of people in a lot of ways. So far, they seem to be okay.”