The sense of anticipation felt by Neil Lennon over a potentially historic trip to Rome for Celtic’s Europa League confrontation against Lazio on Thursday is palpable. Yet, even as he sought to pick his words with the precision of a surgeon the other day, palpable too was a creeping dread over what could ensue off the pitch.
It feels as if the 9,000 Celtic supporters heading to the Stadio Olimpico could be walking into an ambush. In no small part, it must be said, one that they have appeared hellbent on provoking.
There is an obvious culture clash between the hardcore fans of both clubs. Celtic, as represented by their ultra group the Green Brigade, are Marxist in outlook. Lazio’s ultras, La Voce Della Nord, are, frankly, fascistic. It is why a section of their ground will be closed for this week’s Group E encounter. The Uefa sanction was imposed for the racist abuse meted out to Rennes players in their previous home game in the tournament. “Isolated elements” were responsible, petitioned the club’s hierarchy. The same plea in mitigation was offered up when AC Milan player Tiemoue Bakayoko was subjected to despicable racist chants at the Italian Cup semi-final towards the end of last season, and flags emblazoned with fascist dictator Benito Mussolini were flown at the same game.
When the teams met in Glasgow a fortnight ago, the Celtic support then had justifiable cause to call-out the virulently racist element of the Rome club’s support – not least after they Nazi-saluted their way through the centre of the city. The “f*** Lazio” placard, helpfully written in Italian, was one thing, though. In contrast, the banner depicting Mussolini hanging upside down after he had been executed by partisans at the end of the Second World War was a step too far. Its message of “follow your leader” implied violence and brought the latest Uefa charge for Celtic.
Followed by the froth over comments made by Mussolini’s grand-daughter Alessandra defending her forebear’s legacy – inexplicably – this led to a wearingly self-righteous Celtic support chanting for her to “f*** off”, and holding up a poster to that effect, in Italian again, at Aberdeen last weekend. Only minutes before they took to song to decry Derek McInnes as a “sad Orange bastard”. Irony appears lost on this faction…especially when their attempts to say this is not some Protestant slur are every bit as lame as any claims Fenian isn’t a shorthand for Catholic.
All of this has inevitably ramped up the powderkeg nature of this Thursday’s Rome fixture to a dangerous degree. Lennon, pictured inset, recognises that, even as he has to tread carefully in calling for calm.
“In the main we’ve got a great reputation for travelling in Europe and I want that to continue, for the fans to go and enjoy the experience, and be careful, obviously,” he said. “I don’t think there is any animosity between the two clubs. This is something that is separate from the football and we want to quell that as quickly as possible before we, or anyone else, travels out there. [Let’s ] try and make some friends while we’re out there rather than create any animosity.
“I’m not going to come out and criticise our supporters – in the main they are good – but [their banners] don’t help. That’s all I can say on it. We do have a great reputation as a club worldwide and we want to maintain that. I can’t speak on behalf of those people with the banners but it doesn’t do the club any good.”
Lennon would do enormous good to the standing of Celtic as a football team if he could mastermind a win over Lazio this week. Barring a Rennes victory in Cluj, such an outcome would propel the Scottish champions into the knock-out stages, with two games to spare. The difficulty, though, in replicating the last-gasp 2-1 win at home to Simone Inzaghi’s men is given context by the fact that Celtic have never won in Italy in 12 previous attempts.
“There’s a first time for everything,” said Lennon. “We are in a great position but know how difficult the tie will be. Just recently they’ve started to pick up a bit of form in the league as well. They had a great win in midweek against Torino, and a great win away to Fiorentina as well. We are under no illusions as to what we are up against; we saw two weeks ago they are a fantastic side.
“The incentive is there. I’m not saying we are going to win but we are going to do everything we can to not get beat and keep our strength in the position in the group as a whole.”
For Lazio, defeat would confirm their elimination. So while previously they have appeared to prioritise Serie A over Europe this season, that approach will surely change on Thursday. That means transformative forward Ciro Immobile will spearhead the attack after starting on the bench at Celtic Park. Lennon doesn’t shy away from the fact that unleashing a player who leads the Serie A goal charts with 12 strikes this season – leaving Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku in his wake – will make Lazio an entirely different proposition from the team his men faced in Glasgow.
“He’s top quality and he makes them better,” said the Celtic manager. “He is consistently scoring goals, and is really impressive. He’s strong, a really good mover of the ball, his movement off the ball is excellent, and he is a really good finisher. But we need to be prepared for that. And we’ve got our own players who can change a game in a heartbeat. It is a game to look forward to. When the draw was made that was the one that stuck out really, playing in Rome. It will be my first time going to Rome so I’m really excited about it.”