It is only a couple of weeks ago that Boli Bolingoli was being characterised as some sort of terrible Celtic misfit operating well beyond his football station. The recent displays of the £3m summer signing from Rapid Vienna have challenged that perception – not least his outstanding showing in a commanding derby success at Ibrox.
And when it comes to the club’s Europa League group campaign that begins in Rennes on Thursday, it could be argued that the 24-year-old Belgian is the pre-eminent performer of Neil Lennon’s squad.
Bolingoli’s pedigree was cast to one side as he struggled early on this season. That smacked of parochialism. The player is the only one at Celtic who knows what it is like to contest a European quarter-final. Starting out as a winger with Club Brugge his finest moment as an attacker came on March 19 2015 in Turkey. That night he netted a double against Besiktas to bank the Belgians a Europa League last eight tie subsequently lost to FC Dnipro. He also played in the Champions League group stages with Brugge and last season helped Rapid edge out Rangers and progress from the group stage, the reward a last 32 meeting with Internazionale.
Bolingoli knows what it takes to make an impression in continental competition. And, with Celtic ranged against Rennes, Lazio and Champions League-vanquishers Cluj, he believes he is now a member of a playing pool that can take him into new territory in Europe.
“I am looking forward to the Europa League because I have a lot of experience in the competition,” said the amiable full-back, who maintains he is “happy” to now have a rival for the left-back berth following the deadline-day signing of Greg Taylor. “I can’t wait to start because I believe with Celtic we can do something in the Europa League. I think we can go very far.
“We just have to do our work. We have a good group, with three strong teams and we need to play every game as we did over the first two months. Then we will continue to progress this season.
“I think we can do well when I look back to my experiences in Europe. With Club Brugges and Rapid Vienna; every club I played with in the Europa League gave me a nice experience. Those two goals against Besiktas gave my best moment in European football because we had a really good season. We were No1 in the league and playing very well. We went to the last eight of the Europa League and it was a nice experience. With Rapid last season, we got out the group and were happy.
“And now with Celtic, we can do much better than that. This is why I am looking forward to it starting. It’s going to be a great season for us.I have this feeling because we have so much quality. Celtic is not a club that goes to the Europa League just to be there, to do nothing. Celtic is a big club and we want to represent the name of this football club in the Europa League. We want to go far and at least try to win something. This is why I think we can do something.”
To simply “do something” in the Roazhon Park in four days’ time, will require Lennon’s men to stretch themselves. They may be unbeaten in four away encounters in Europe this season, but they have not been ranged against a big-five league side that boast a recent win over the monied Paris Saint-Germain, the team they beat in the final of the French Cup in May. The Celtic manager believes that a club famed for its player production line may be undergoing a “renaissance”, and certainly that much could be said about Bolingoli.
The former Rapid man’s personal capabilities have certainly been reassessed after he faced a barrage of criticism in the opening month of his Celtic career. So much so, that he and centre-back Christopher Jullien were presented as weak links that Rangers would exploit ruthlessly a fortnight ago. Instead, the pair excelled as Celtic produced a faultless defensive display in the 2-0 victory.
“Let’s just say that in the beginning it was not easy to adapt,” he said. “But we stayed strong and it’s getting better and better. My confidence is coming and I am enjoying being on the pitch even more.
“Other people outside were talking about Christopher and me. We both, the whole team, knew about our quality and were confident and believed in ourselves. If we did not have quality we would not be in this club. It was maybe just a question of time for us. We needed to adapt. We were ready for that big game and we showed the people were wrong.
“If you play with a team that has a lot of confidence, you will see the talent within the team. You saw that at Ibrox. Now it is over. We need to look forward and focus on the next games. We want to show in every game that we are Celtic.”