Celtic 3-1 Rennes: Neil Lennon’s men seal top spot in Europa League group

Celtic's Mikey Johnston scores his side's third goal against Rennes. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Celtic's Mikey Johnston scores his side's third goal against Rennes. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
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When you set the kind of standards Celtic have over the past three and a half years, some milestone moments inevitably resonate less than others.

But the treble-treble winning Scottish champions racked up another landmark achievement to be proud of as they secured a first-place finish in Group E of the Europa League with a comprehensive win over Rennes.

Goals from Lewis Morgan, Ryan Christie and substitute Mikey Johnston handed manager Neil Lennon the result he desired to maintain his team’s impressive momentum this season.

Celtic had already clinched qualification for the knockout stages of the Europa League but they are now certain to finish top of a European club competition group for the first time. It also means they will 
be seeded in the draw for the last 32.

Morgan has been a peripheral figure at Celtic since joining them from St Mirren 18 months ago and has recently been strongly linked with another loan reunion with his former manager and mentor Jack Ross at Hibs.

But, as he made only his seventh starting appearance for the club, deployed as the focal point of Celtic’s attack in the absence of Odsonne Edouard, the 23-year-old Scotland international made the most of the unexpected opportunity.

Morgan’s 22nd-minute opener for the hosts came as they started to take a firm grip of the contest, having subdued a lively start from Rennes who had forced Fraser Forster into the first meaningful save of the evening when the goalkeeper did well to keep out a stinging drive from Romain del 
Castillo. When his first sniff of goal came, Morgan was unable to react sharply enough to take advantage after Rennes keeper Edouard Mendy could only parry a long-range effort from Olivier Ntcham.

But he produced an instinctive finish which any striker would be proud of when Celtic went in front. It was a fine move from Lennon’s men, the one-touch combination build-up down the left from Greg Taylor and James Forrest matched by Morgan’s first time left-foot shot which beat Mendy to his right.

Celtic’s concentration levels dipped momentarily three minutes later when Del Castillo, left unmarked as he got on the end of Benjamin Bourigeaud’s corner, glanced a header narrowly wide of Forster’s left-hand post.

The home side were quickly back on the front foot and Mendy did well to save another powerful long-range effort from Ntcham who had been set up by a good lay-off from Morgan.

Moritz Bauer, who has effectively become Celtic’s third-choice right back behind Hatem Elhamed and Jeremie
Frimpong over the past few months, was another keen to impress as he started due to the absence of that duo through injury and ineligibility respectively.

The Austrian international caught the eye going forward and produced a fine cross which Morgan could only head straight at Mendy from close range.

But Celtic claimed the second goal their dominance merited in first-half stoppage time. The Rennes defence were caught flat-footed as Christie latched onto Scott Brown’s headed through ball, the attacking midfielder cutting in from the right and drilling in a left-foot shot which beat the ponderous Mendy at his left-hand post.

Rennes had made eight changes to their starting line-up, making no attempt to disguise the fact their priority in what has developed into a dismal season is their league fixture at home to St Etienne this weekend. To their credit, 
however, they continued to apply themselves to bringing a competitive edge to a fixture in which nothing but pride was at stake.

Their physicality was sufficient to cause Brown to pick up a booking early in the second half for a foul on James Siliki. It means the Celtic captain will miss the final group game away to Cluj through suspension, albeit he may well have been rested in any case.

Rennes retained enough attacking ambition to pose some serious questions of the Celtic defence and should have pulled a goal back in the 57th minute.

Forster did brilliantly to parry a close range shot from Del Castillo, the ball breaking to Theoson Siebatcheu who looked certain to force home the rebound. Incredibly, his effort was diverted onto a post by the defiant Forster.

The big Englishman made another smart stop to deny Emmanuel Maouassa but Celtic snuffed out any prospect of a Rennes revival when they made it 3-0 in the 74th minute. It was a happy return for Johnston, absent for almost three months because of injury.

The winger, who had replaced Forrest seven minutes earlier, made a darting run and exchanged passes with Ntcham on the edge of the penalty area before guiding a low angled shot across Mendy for his fifth goal of the season.

There was consolation for Rennes a minute from time when substitute Adrien Hunou met a cross from Maouassa and flicked a neat header beyond Forster but it could not take the shine off another highly satisfying European night for Celtic.