All the elements that ordinarily conspire to consign Celtic to defeat on the road in a European group stage game were to be found last night. Yet, the enormous kudos earned by Neil Lennon’s men with this draw can be attributed to the fact that they were defined by what they did well, not what they did badly.
The worst of the latter was the most brainless bout of defending by Kristoffer Ajer. He committed no fewer than three illegal challenges in one ghastly interaction, resulting in Celtic falling behind to a 37th-minute penalty which undid an opening spell when they had looked comfortable and confident. And then, as they sought to protect the draw they had subsequently rustled up with a spot-kick of their own, they had to see out the final minutes with ten men as the result of a red card shown to substitute Vakoun Bayo thanks to two cautions across the mere six minutes following his 84th-minute introduction.
However, there was no sense from Neil Lennon’s side that they would allow any setbacks to send them under.
They demonstrated far too much composure and footballing smarts against a team currently second in the French top flight to let that happen. These facets were indicative of the maturity shown in Brittany last night and which has all too often proved elusive in past similar circumstances.
For a team that have won only three of 46 away group games in what is now 16 European campaigns – ten of these in the Champions League – it said everything about the accomplished nature of their display that Lennon could afterwards express disappointment at not snaring all three points. A result that would not have flattered them.
It should be remembered that Rennes’ last home encounter in Europe brought them a 3-1 victory over Arsenal, while only a month ago at their Roazhon Park home they put Paris Saint-Germain to the sword.
Celtic’s shambolic 4-3 home loss to Cluj that put paid to their Champions League prospects in early August now seems an awfully long time ago for Lennon’s side.
Few then would have given tuppence for Celtic being able to play with such purpose and poise in an exacting away assignment in Europe this season. The bashing that Lennon’s coaching capabilities and his game management then took seemed to be a result of collective amnesia; with his European endeavours in his first spell – topped with a Champions League last 16 underpinned by a famous victory over Barcelona – completely overlooked.
Lennon drew attention to these once more courtesy of one notable takeaway following last night’s draw. He has now helmed the team for five European away games in this campaign.
He has yet to suffer a defeat in any of them with wins in Sarejevo, Stockholm and Estonia, and draws in Cluj and now Rennes. The run equals the best such sequence in the club’s European history. Only once before have Celtic strung together five away games in continental competition without posting any losses. It just so happens that this quintet came during Lennon’s first spell, between 2010 and 2011.
In his post-match last night, Lennon compared both these eras and maintained that the current crop of players are of better vintage.
That suggests the Europa League could offer some promise for the club.
If nothing else, with Lennon in charge, any sense that away fixtures are write-offs can be parked. With Cluj and Lazio – whom the Romanians surprisingly beat 2-1 last night – to come at home in the next two group games, the focus now switches to bolstering home comforts in Europe.