Big scalps prove Old Firm can make impact in Europe again

Celtic's French midfielder Olivier Ntcham (3rdL) celebrates with team-mates after scoring the winning goal during the Europa League Group E match against Lazio in Rome. Picture: Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images
Celtic's French midfielder Olivier Ntcham (3rdL) celebrates with team-mates after scoring the winning goal during the Europa League Group E match against Lazio in Rome. Picture: Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images
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Earning credibility beyond 
its own borders has proved painfully elusive for Scottish football in recent years.

So regardless of any affinity to either of the Old Firm clubs or otherwise, there should be a collective appreciation throughout the country for the Europa League victories achieved by Celtic and Rangers
on Thursday night.

Rangers' Steven Davis celebrates with Alfredo Morelos after the midfielder scored his side's second goal during the Europa League Group G match against Porto at Ibrox. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS Group

Rangers' Steven Davis celebrates with Alfredo Morelos after the midfielder scored his side's second goal during the Europa League Group G match against Porto at Ibrox. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS Group

The historic 2-1 win for Neil Lennon’s side against Lazio in Rome and the 2-0 success for Steven Gerrard’s men over a Porto outfit who reached the Champions League quarter-finals last season merit all the praise being heaped upon them.

It is certainly the most notable pair of results by Scottish teams in a European week for more than a decade, since October 2007 when Rangers’ 3-0 win over Lyon in France was complemented by Celtic’s 2-1 defeat of AC Milan at Parkhead.

Granted, both of those fixtures were in the Champions League group stage in a campaign when Celtic went on to reach the last 16 of the elite club tournament and Rangers made it all the way to the Uefa Cup final.

But even in the second-tier Europa League, claiming the scalps of ‘heavyweight’ names such as Lazio and Porto offers evidence that Scottish football’s big two are both ready to make their presence felt more forcefully on the continental stage once again.

That’s certainly the vibe Celtic manager Lennon was feeling yesterday as he reflected upon overseeing his club’s first ever away victory against Italian opposition. For the man who was a key figure in Celtic’s memorable run to the Uefa Cup final in 2003, the good times have very much returned.

“It’s the first time I’ve really felt, since I’ve been back, it’s Celtic again,” said Lennon.

“That sort of big night, huge crowd, connection with the fans – the whole lot. It was just like the old days really, absolutely fantastic.

“From my own personal viewpoint, it was like those great European nights, going away with 10,000 fans and 
feeling such pride.

“Even when we went a goal down and were a little bit on the ropes, the atmosphere in the away end was 
unbelievable.

“Then the scenes at the end were just fabulous, it took me back 15 or 20 years ago – just that rawness of the support and connection with the players. It was very special.

“They were coming in their thousands when we filled Ewood Park and Anfield 
during the Uefa Cup run that season all those years ago.

“I’m sure we could have sold even more tickets for the game in Rome this week. It gives the fans a real feel for it again, that gravitas in Europe against a top side.

“Then for us to go and play as brilliantly as that, it just 
all felt like it was coming together again.

“It was epic. Your first feeling is one of immense pride, not just in the win but the quality of the performance.”

Celtic have already booked their place in the knockout stage of the tournament, while Rangers effectively need just one win from their remaining two games to join them in the last 32.

The old rivals cannot be drawn against each other until the last 16, a prospect which prompts a grin from Lennon.

“It would be carnage – we’d have to play a one-off game behind closed doors somewhere!,” he laughed.

On a more serious note, Lennon is gratified that the efforts of both his players and those on the other side of a divided football city are combining to improve the often derided image of the Scottish game.

“Both clubs are serving Scotland very well at the minute,” he added. “It’s good for momentum and the 
credibility of the game.

“You see players who have left Scottish football in the last four or five years and gone down to England and have excelled. So you don’t listen to outsiders and people wanting to put the game here down. When you’re in it, you want to praise it and make the best of it.”

Olivier Ntcham, Celtic’s stoppage-time match winner in Rome on Thursday, was perhaps caught up in the euphoria of the moment – understandably so – when he declared the Scottish champions could go on and win the Europa League this season.

Lennon was quick to cool such heady predictions with his priority now to ensure Celtic finish top of their group which would ensure they are seeded for the last-32 draw.

“No, I can’t let myself think about winning it,” he said. “We are in the last 32, that’s all. Listen, I love to hear my players talking like that, it’s a huge positive. But the last 32 doesn’t come around until February and that’s three months away.

“A lot of things can come and go before then – form, whatever. And you’ve got the January transfer window.

“So we’ll take it one step at a time. I’m looking forward to the two remaining group games at home to Rennes and away to Cluj when we can be a bit more relaxed and maybe utilise some of the squad.

“Then we’ll look forward to what the draw brings. Hopefully we can top the group and that will give us a better chance – but you never know who you can get in the draw. I’m just delighted we are through, especially doing it with such belief and purpose.”