LEN­NON’S GLAD­I­A­TORS RISE AGAIN

Seven years af­ter that Barca tri­umph, Celtic seal progress with last-gasp win

Scottish Daily Mail - - Football -

ON the sev­enth an­niver­sary of a mem­o­rable win over Lionel Messi’s Barcelona, Neil Len­non proved here that, some­times, light­ning strikes twice.

For Celtic, a night which started badly ended in truly glo­ri­ous fash­ion. In hugs, hand­shakes, his­tory and a place in the last 32 of the Europa League.

Even in the glit­ter­ing Jock Stein era, Scot­land’s cham­pi­ons never won a game on Ital­ian soil. At the 13th time of ask­ing, they fi­nally did it in the most dra­matic and gutsy fash­ion. Make no mis­take, an out­stand­ing dis­play in Rome’s glad­i­a­to­rial Sta­dio Olimpico was a per­sonal tri­umph for Len­non.

A stun­ning win­ner from sub­sti­tute Olivier Ntcham, five min­utes into stop­page time, se­cured a place in the knock­out stage with two matches to play.

A sixth straight away game in Europe with­out de­feat also set a new club record. In the process, Len­non pro­duced the kind of away per­for­mance in Europe that

Bren­dan Rodgers al­ways promised but never de­liv­ered.

The win was more re­mark­able for an in­aus­pi­cious start when Celtic slipped be­hind to a Ciro Im­mo­bile opener af­ter seven min­utes.

A fifth Eu­ro­pean goal of the cam­paign from James For­rest re­stored par­ity be­fore half-time. But, yet again, it took some su­perb goal­keep­ing from Fraser Forster to deny Valon Ber­isha and Luis Al­berto in the clos­ing min­utes. Not for the first time, the English keeper broke Lazio hearts.

When Ntcham then lifted an an­gled chip over Thomas Strakosha, the joy was un­re­strained.

Seven points clear of Lazio in Group E, Eu­ro­pean foot­ball af­ter Christ­mas is now the min­i­mum Len­non’s team can achieve. On nights like this, any­thing seems pos­si­ble.

The man­ager opted for a prag­matic ap­proach, switch­ing from 4-2-3-1 to 3-5-2. As his team bat­tled back from an aw­ful start, the end jus­ti­fied the means.

Pre­dictably, the dam­age was done by Im­mo­bile, Lazio’s top scorer. From Celtic’s point of view, it was a poor goal to con­cede.

Winger Manuel Laz­zari, a scorer in Glas­gow, had the run of the right flank in the open­ing half hour. His swing­ing cross from the touch­line into a crowded penalty area skid­ded off the head of Celtic de­fender Christo­pher Jul­lien and landed at the feet of the man the vis­i­tors could least af­ford to leave un­marked. With a non­cha­lant swish of his right boot, Im­mo­bile stroked the ball low into the net from ten yards.

The goal took the wind from the sails of a rau­cous Celtic trav­el­ling sup­port of around 9,000 packed into a sec­tion of stand be­hind the goal.

Im­mo­bile threat­ened to dou­ble the lead in 20 min­utes when he plucked a high ball out of the air and skipped past Hatem Abd El­hamed a lit­tle too eas­ily, only for Kris Ajer to step in and take the ball from his toe.

For half an hour, Celtic found this hard go­ing. They could nei­ther pass the ball nor keep hold of it when they did. All of which made the fi­nal out­come a source of wild sat­is­fac­tion.

Throw­ing Mo­hamed Ely­ounoussi up front to sup­port Od­sonne Edouard, Len­non’s plan be­gan to come to­gether af­ter 38 min­utes.

Celtic scored with their first and only at­tempt on goal in the first half. A stun­ning strike by For­rest stemmed from su­perb work by Ely­ounoussi on the edge of the Lazio area.

Pinch­ing the ball off the toe of Laz­zari, a per­fectly-weighted pass to For­rest wide on the right crept past the out­stretched foot of Francesco Acerbi, the Celtic winger gath­er­ing the ball and thump­ing high into the postage-stamp cor­ner for a ter­rific equaliser.

Make no mis­take, Celtic needed their wits about them at times. Lazio blew three out­stand­ing chances to re­gain the lead be­fore half-time.

Forster had a strange, con­tra­dic­tory night at times. He made a fine div­ing save from a down­ward header by cov­eted mid­fielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic but looked less clever from the re­sul­tant cor­ner, de­fender Jul­lien hook­ing a weak headed ef­fort from Felipe Caicedo off the line af­ter the keeper had missed the ball com­pletely.

When cap­tain Marco Parolo headed a su­perb Laz­zari cross firmly over the bar from eight yards, Celtic breathed again.

The in­ter­val of­fered a chance to re­group. In con­trast with the first half, the vis­i­tors be­gan the sec­ond with pur­pose and at­tack­ing in­tent.

The tone was set min­utes af­ter the restart when a poor clear­ance from Lazio keeper Strakosha was headed to the feet of Cal­lum McGre­gor, the mid­fielder pick­ing out Edouard. The French­man’s firmly-struck low shot al­most crept un­der the keeper’s body.

The roars from the away sup­port­ers re­flected a grow­ing air of at­tack­ing con­vic­tion in Len­non’s men.

They blew a won­der­ful chance to take the lead min­utes later when

Jonny Hayes dis­pos­sessed a hes­i­tant Lu­cas Leiva in the Celtic half. Three yel­low shirts burst for­ward at speed on the counter-at­tack.

For­rest led a three-against-two charge and, had the winger looked up, he would have spot­ted an un­marked Edouard in space. By tak­ing it him­self, a ter­rific op­por­tu­nity was lost.

Nev­er­the­less, Celtic were now play­ing well. The pass­ing was crisp, the move­ment a plea­sure to watch at times.

Cool and calm: For­rest fires in the equaliser (in­set) be­fore Ntcham chips home the price­less win­ning goal

by STEPHEN McGOWAN Chief Foot­ball Writer at the Sta­dio Olimpico

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