Analysis: European crusade highlights Neil Lennon’s habit of breaking down boundaries

Neil Lennon celebrates with his players following their victory over Lazio in Rome. Picture: Getty
Neil Lennon celebrates with his players following their victory over Lazio in Rome. Picture: Getty
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S    pecial things happen
  for Celtic in Europe with Neil Lennon at the helm of the club. So much so, it seems almost matter of fact to say the club haven’t known a continental victory of the magnitude he presided over courtesy of his team’s stoppage-time winner away to Lazio last night since that fabled victory at home to Barcelona in 2012.

The firsts that now cascade down upon Lennon as if some shower of glitter are nothing short of monumental. The headline acts in a glory story, understandably, will be a first triumph in 13 attempts on Italian soil – something that eluded even the Lisbon Lions, even when they were in their pomp on the most exacting stage – and a first European group qualification for the knock-out stages with two games to spare for a Scottish club.

Yet there is more, so much more, to an evening which had the 9,000 Celtic supporters in the Stadio Olimpico dissolving into delirum when substitute Olivier Ntcham chipped in from the tightest of angles in the 94th minute with incredible sangfroid.

Skewering the side sitting fourth in Serie A for the second time inside a fortnight extended Celtic’s unbeaten run on the road in Europe to six games. Again, in the club’s near 60 years contesting cross-border competition, such a run has never been accomplished.

They may not be operating at Europe’s top tier in this campaign, but to set up a sparkling six they have had to travel to two of the big five leagues, standing their ground both in Italy and France. The fact that for so long Celtic have appeared to go to pieces on foreign soil when the heat has really come on makes this feat all the more remarkable.

Moreover, just as in Rennes on the opening match day of Group E, last night they recovered from the loss of the opening goal to make their mark.

To give context to what Lennon and his men pulled off – with a degree of good fortune, as with their added-time success at home to Simone Inzaghi’s side – the win is only the club’s third in their past 33 European away games.

Lennon, between his first stint and his current tour of duty, is now responsible for two of these, the other coming in that run to the last 16 of the Champions League in 2012-13 that was underpinned by a 3-2 success away to Spartak Moscow. And, what would you know, that was earned when Georgios Samaras headed in with the full 90 minutes having elapsed as well.

That says much about the character and spirit of Celtic under Lennon, never mind the mindset.

It seemed pre-match that he was merely indulging in the necessary talking up of his team’s prospects when he said that “records are there to be broken” when ruminating on the failure of Celtic to win in their previous 12 trips to Italy. But, on reflection, it echoed his reaction to Ajax reaching the Champions League final last season.

Insread, of expressing a certain longing about the feat, the Irishman said it was proof that Celtic should not simply accept that there was a glass ceiling when it came to what their aims should be in continental competition.

The last 32 of the Europa League will not be the limit of Lennon’s ambitions this season. And that is where the two remaining games – at home to Rennes at the end of this month before a return to Cluj to complete their Group E commitments – come in.

Celtic have never topped any of the previous 14 European groups they have participated in . It has meant they have always met a top seed whenever they have then gone forward to knockout stages. A win over Rennes on 28 November would ensure a different route in the quest to go deeper into continental competition than they have since reaching the final of the Uefa Cup in 2003: a time when the second-tier tournament was straight knock-out all the way through.

Of course, there is something else at stake when they entertain their French opponents. No Scottish team has ever amassed more than ten points from a group campaign. Celtic are already on that total, with six points still to play for.

In the aftermath of one of the greatest achievements of his near-decade in management – which had him reaching for words such as “historic” and “amazing” – Lennon said his team were setting “new boundaries”.

There is something about Lennon that doesn’t allow him to settle for the boundaries that others would maintain he must operate within. Celtic supporters may now recognise how valuable that makes him to their club.