Neil Lennon’s first victory over Italian opposition as Celtic manager was worth the wait for the Scottish champions as they came from behind to overcome Lazio and cement their position at the top of Europa League Group E.
It was a triumph of courage and sheer will from Lennon’s men who refused to bow to what appeared an inevitable setback when Manuel Lazzari gave the Rome side a half-time lead.
Ryan Christie’s 12th goal of the season drew Celtic level and while they rode their luck at times and were indebted to some top quality goalkeeping from Fraser Forster, they more than earned the three points secured by Christopher Jullien’s 89th minute winner.
Lennon placed his trust in the same starting line-up which had turned in such a commanding performance in beating Cluj at Celtic Park on matchday two of the group but his players quickly discovered that imposing themselves on Lazio would be far more challenging.
While Celtic enjoyed significant spells of possession from the outset, they were confronted by opponents whose defensive diligence and tactical discipline was straight out of the Serie A playbook.
An early goal may have spared the hosts much of the frustration they experienced but Odsonne Edouard’s first glimmer of an opportunity, carved out by a thrusting James Forrest run down the right in the third minute, was defied by a superb block from Lazio’s Angolan central defender Bastos.
Christie came closest to making the breakthrough for Celtic in the often frenetic opening stages, his purely struck shot from around 22 yards thumping against
Thomas Strakosha’s left hand post with the Lazio goalkeeper scrambling anxiously.
Former Liverpool player Lucas Leiva was the fulcrum for the exemplary organisation of the visitors’ work, the veteran Brazilian gradually setting a platform for the more creative talent around him to start asking questions of the Celtic defence.
Fraser Forster was forced into action for the first time in the 17th minute and the Celtic ‘keeper was less than convincing as he spilled Joaquin Correa’s shot before Jullien stepped in to clear the danger.
Forster was more assured when he clutched a Bastos header from Jony’s corner a minute later as the visitors continued to probe intelligently.
A surging break on the left from Edouard brought renewed encouragement for the home fans, the striker linking well with Christie to find Forrest on the right side of the penalty area but the winger could not get the ball out from under his feet.
Edouard was generally being well policed by Lazio but Jullien’s brilliant diagonal pass out of defence created an opening for the striker on the left. He appeared fractionally slow to react, however, and Strakosha was able to rush from his line and snuff out the threat.
As Celtic tried to up the tempo before half-time, Callum McGregor came close with a shot from the edge of the box which dipped narrowly over.
But it was Lazio who opened the scoring five minute from the interval with a stunning counter-attacking goal. Felipe Caicedo secured possession and fed Correa who quickly shuttled the ball to Lazzari who was thundering down the right.
With Celtic left-back Boli Bolingoli stranded upfield, Lazzari bustled his way into the penalty area and lashed a right foot shot high beyond Forster from the corner of the six yard box.
The signs were ominous for Celtic at this stage against a Lazio side who appeared both content and more than capable of defending their lead.
Lennon’s men were admirably undaunted, forcing themselves firmly onto the front foot after the break. Mohamed Elyounoussi, badly out of touch for most of his time on the pitch, should have done better with an effort which was blocked by Denis Vavro.
There was another telling intervention from Vavro when he got in the way of a close range shot from Christie who had been played in by Edouard’s cute back-heeled pass as Celtic tried to prise open the Lazio defence.
It looked as if the hosts would be undone on the counter-attack again in the 65th minute but Lazio were denied what would surely have been an unassailable 2-0 advantage when Correa beat Forster but saw his shot strike the ‘keeper’s right hand post.
Celtic, with Tom Rogic replacing Elyounoussi, made the most of their let-off as they claimed an equaliser two minutes later. Lazio’s defensive solidity deserted them on this occasion as Edouard found space and time to measure a pass inside to Christie who swept a first time left foot shot beyond Strakosha from just inside the penalty area.
As Celtic committed themselves to the pursuit of a winner in the closing stages of an increasingly gripping spectacle, Lazio twice threatened to land a sucker punch. Forster made a magnificent save to deny visiting skipper Marco Parolo’s close range effort, then substitute Ciro Immobile dragged a simple chance wide.
Celtic’s persistence and resilience paid off with Jullien’s dramatic winner, the big French defender rising imperiously to head home Christie’s corner and send most of Celtic Park into a state of delirium.
The drama wasn’t over, Forster making a breathtaking save from Danilo Cataldi’s 95th minute thunderbolt to ensure Celtic remain in pole position to progress to the knockout stages of the tournament.