LENNON’S GLADIATORS RISE AGAIN
Seven years after that Barca triumph, Celtic seal progress with last-gasp win
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