Celtic have stood toe to toe with a confident and aggressive Italian side
over two epic matches. Putting partisanship to one side, these were terrific football matches. Both sides committed to attack. I haven’t recorded a game where there were more forward passes across the two sides that the first
In Rome, with the Italians having to win, they started at the speed of a Catherine Wheel. We’ve seen this scenario before. Celtic concede early (in my head I’m thinking “weak”) and look like buckling. But this is a confident Celtic side, with sufficient new blood under Lennon to maintain hunger, and a blend of experience and youth (the Jullien/Ajer axis in defence, Brown/McGregor in midfield and Forrest/Edouard in attack).
Lennon, correctly in my opinion, matched up 3-5-2 and, as the game wore on, increasingly established a foothold and more into the game. Forrest’s characteristic finish on 38 minutes was the timely confidence boost the team needed on hostile shores.
It is the second half that was revelatory. They took the game to Lazio when a draw would have been worth defending. Over the piece they created 12 chances to 13 by them and had 12 shots to 15. As at Celtic Park, they went toe to toe.
Lazio, as I previewed, went long (86 times) but Celtic also showed variety with 68 long passes of their own. The point is, this is a pragmatic side Lennon is evolving.
In the end, Ntcham scored the 10th goal Celtic have managed in the last 10 minutes of games this season. His Dalglish-esque chip also secured a 5th comeback win – 3 in Europe. 8 times in 26 matches Celtic have come from behind to draw or win. On such patterns history is made.
This was a performance of resilience, bravery (to attack) and belief. Two come-from-behind wins against Italian opponents are also a difficult habit to break.Listen to the latest episode of the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind
History repeated itself last night with a win that will be up there as one of the best away performances in Europe by any Celtic side seen for decades.
Ntcham’s chip over the keeper in the 95th minute of a pulsating game in Rome will live long in the memory, not only for the 8,000-plus in the stadium but for the many more watching around the globe.
To beat the might of Lazio home and away was unthinkable when the group was drawn, many – myself included – expected Lazio to run away with this group, and leave us to fight it out with Rennes for the second spot, but to be is this position, having qualified with two games still to go, is amazing.
Neil Lennon may not have been everyone’s choice when he was announced as manger back in May after the Scottish Cup final, but any voices of discontent about that appointment are long gone. He has built a team that we are all proud of, a team of battlers, a team not afraid to stand up to a challenge when most say it’s not possible and It can’t be done.
The manager said after the game that he told the players if you build something, they will come.
On the evidence of last night, he is building something very special.
As the teams lined up in the Olympic Stadium, I thought a few players looked a little nervous, the normally focused team seemed, well… a bit apprehensive. The well-trodden feeling of a typical European away match was confirmed in the opening 15 minutes. Celtic invited pressure and seemed stand-offish, chances came and went for our hosts and we were duly punished. One down in the opening minutes of a game to an Italian team… if only we could draw strength from previous similar experience.
Even on the biggest of days you can be forgiven for turning up a little late, just ask any bride on their wedding day. Sometimes you just need to test the waters and get comfortable in your surroundings before making yourself feel at home.
As the first half progressed, Celtic began to grow in their noisy surroundings. The nerves shown earlier by the Scottish champions were now being shared by Lazio as spaces began to appear and passes went astray. Level at half-time thanks to a thunderous strike from James Forrest did hide some frailties in our defensive abilities, but confidence was on the rise.
The second half had the feel of a real knockout cup match. End-to-end football and incredible noise from the fans in the stadium. Both teams had chances, and maybe better decision-making in the final third from Celtic would have yielded a goal. At the other end, Fraser Forster produced his now customary big saves on a big European night.
We were made to wait to reap the rewards of a wonderful second-half display. Lazio had struggled with our high press for most of the second-half and, as their legs became weary, Odsonne Edouard pounced on a loose ball. The Celtic midfield exploded into attack with players making angles for the talismanic Frenchman. His pass picked out fellow countryman Ntcham to calmly chip the ball over the diving keeper and into the net starting wild celebrations behind the goal, on the field, and in the dugout. A magical moment that will no doubt be enjoyed again and again, rightly so.Watch Professor Willy Maley with A Celtic State of Mind