There wasn’t just outrageous drama about Celtic’s last-gasp victory over Lazio last night. When Christopher Jullien rose majestically to head in the 89th-minute winner the Frenchman ensured that the evening took on significant historical importance.
In the 15th European group campaign that Celtic have been involved in the past two decades (nine in the Champions League and six in the Europa League), the seven-point haul they now boast is a total they have never bettered at the halfway stage of a section.
Only once before have they reached this mark at the same juncture, which came when Ronny Deila’s Celtic did so in the 2014-15 season. Then, though, they did not have teams from the top leagues of Italy and France in their section, but Astra of Romania, Croatians Dinamo Zagreb and Red Bull Salzburg of Austria. Last night’s extraordinary turnaround did not look possible when Celtic trailed 1-0. It seemed to suggest the hyping up of the Scottish champions’ prospects had ignored historical precedent. For, with the exception of a certain fabled afternoon in Lisbon back in 1967, Celtic have so often had a habit of going weak in the presence of Italian sides. In 25 previous games against them, Celtic had recorded five wins, and suffered 12 defeats.
Neil Lennon talked about last night feeling like a Champions League occasion, and it had that taste for long spells. It recalled the Gordon Strachan era when Celtic so often lived on their wits, were in spells outplayed, but somehow conjured up late goals that turned ties inside out as they made the knock-out stages of Europe’s premier competition in 2007 and 2008. Folklore evenings against Shakhtar Dontesk, Manchester United and AC Milan.
Scott McDonald’s late winner that evening against the then Champions League holders in late 2007 was of an altogether greater magnitude, but some of the plotlines were familiar. AC Milan that night seemed on course to do the job they set out to do, only to be derailed by a spirit that can make strange things happen.
Lazio, unlike Milan, were no exponents of catenaccio; they exhibited more than a lick of enterprise, and could fan open concertina-style to great effect – no occasion more lethally than when they punctured the home side with a laser-precision counter attack.
Yet there was something about their defensive discipline and ability to close spaces and suffocate attackers that was so very Italian. And for so long so humbling for a Lennon side determined to play on the front foot.
Much as Celtic played well in spells, Lazio held a one-goal advantage going into the final 20 minutes. They seemed to have the answers as Celtic struggled to create enough questions. Ryan Christie’s goal, in the 67th minute wouldn’t you just know, inverted all previous perceptions, though.
A deft finish, yes. But it was the product of a simplicity. The Celtic man wasn’t closed down at the edge of the area, and latched on to an Odsonne Edouard cross that the Frenchman delivered without being blocked off. In essence, then, Lazio were punished for defensive slackness.
The visitors’ failure to restore an advantage betrayed wastefulness in front of goal, but it also pointed to some big heart from Lennon’s side. And heart counts for a lot in such bubbling cauldrons. In Europe under the Irishman, Celtic have often exhibited that. What they hadn’t done so in six previous meetings with Italian sides was win. Certainly, they rode their luck in the closing stages.
But essentially they succeeded in prising open the jaws of the Venus flytrap that Lazio had appeared to clamp them in. That was a feat that will, and deserves to be, cherished.