Analysis of Celtic's famous 2-1 win over Lazio in Rome's Stadio Olimpico.
Celtic knew their first-ever win in Italy would all but secure them progression from Europa League Group E, into the knockout stages. In certain circumstances it would confirm qualification. It would mean being 13th-time lucky. It did not look like going that way to begin with but Neil Lennon's men are made of something special. The control and game intelligence brought in by Brendan Rodgers has married with Lennon's enthusiasm, aggression and Celtic-ness. It has produced a formidable side
In two consecutive games they have gone behind against one of Italy's biggest sides and in two consecutive games against one of Italy's biggest sides they have won. Such results don't usually happen with Scottish sides. Yet, here they are in the knockout stages with two games to spare - no Scottish side has ever done that before, whether it is in the Champions League, Europa League, Uefa Cup or even Intertoto Cup. The way in which they did so made it even more special, dragging themselves back into the game then going toe-to-toe with Simone Inzaghi's side. They could easily have got the winner before Olivier Ntcham steeped off the bench and chipped in a quite glorious winner. That is a point in itself. Celtic can afford to bring a player of Ntcham's calibre off the bench. Away to Lazio. This will be remembered for a long time.
At Celtic Park, in the match between these two teams, this writer wrote about the paucity of Elyounoussi's performance and how, for someone who cost so much and with the experience he has gained in Europe, he should be stepping up on the big occasions. Talk about stepping up, he sure showed me. Celtic had struggled early on, including the Norwegian, but he helped drag the side into the game and up the park with his movement and willingness to work off the ball. Once in the final third he produced the moments of class. He slid in James Forrest with a perfectly weighted pass for the equaliser and should have set up the winner when he casually turned the ball into the path of Odsonne Edouard but the Frenchman shot past the post. There was a sense that every time he got on the ball he would make something happen. It is now at the point where it's the case of 'Scott who?' (Scott Sinclair). The 25-year-old is being so influential off the left or even through the middle as happened tonight. He's now hit six goals in his last six appearances with a couple of assists as well.
Much had been made of Celtic's trip to Lazio. It started with some talking down to the club's support for calling out Lazio and their racist and fascist fans. There were warnings and advice for those travelling to Rome for the second encounter and suggestions that all the banners did was antagonise the Italian 'ultras'. Then it was almost a case of 'I told you so' when two travelling supporters were stabbed by two masked thugs. Yet, this is not a new thing in Rome. British football fans are often targeted by 'ultras' or, let's be honest, cowards. However, the match itself produced a wonderful atmosphere, complete with flares (adding to the spectacle), flags and abuse going back and forth despite large gaps in the stadium due to a partial ground closure due to racist abuse from Lazio fans during their Europa League game with Rennes. With officially 8,000 fans, Celtic made their voice heard loud and clear. None more so with the explosion which greeted Ntcham's winner.
Fraser Froster was the matchwinner when Celtic beat Lazio 2-1 last month. There was an incredible point-blank save from Marco Parolo before a flying save to his right in stoppage time to prevent the visitors from scoring. Yet, even Neil Lennon mentioned that he wasn't sure about his goalkeeper for the opening goal as the goal flashed right past him. In the Stadio Olimpico there were fragile moments. A punch straight up in the air when he could have easily caught under little pressure before missing a later cross completely. Then there was an early save where he parried into the middle of the box, the ball falling to an offside Felipe Caicedo. Yet, when it really matters he stands up and stands tall. In the second half he showed his excellent attributes, beating away a Sergej Milinkovic-Savic header from close in, denying Valon Berisha then turning away a Luis Alberto effort. He has his moments but more often than not he produces between the sticks.
Neil Lennon confirmed emphatically to BT Sport before the game that Celtic would be matching their opponents' 3-5-2 with Jonny Hayes and James Forrest as wing-backs. The Northern Irishman switched to a back three at Parkhead in the first meeting between the sides which worked. It didn't get off to a good start with Hayes allowing too much time and space for a cross to find Ciro Immobile, with James Forrest nowhere near him, who volleyed past Fraser Forster. More than anything, however, was the sloppiness to Celtic's play, most notable their passing. There were passes which were too short and too long. Passes which were intercepted and passes which rolled out of play. It was best summed up in the 21st minute when Odsonne Edouard made a movement to run in behind but Mohammed Elyounoussi passed it short. There was a disconnect that Celtic won't be able to get away with further in tournament.