Celtic are on the cusp of making history for themselves in Europe. It’s not quite 1967 all over again, but it’s still worth noting.
If the Parkhead side beat Rennes tomorrow night they will rack up a tenth win so far this season in Europe, which is one more than they managed en route to the Uefa Cup final in 2003, their previous best-ever total.
It is, of course, a very modern statistic; Celtic only played nine games when they lifted the European Cup, for example. But now European campaigns really are campaigns, often stretching from high summer onwards and involving multiple matches, this target is a feat of tactical know-how as well as endurance.
A tenth victory in 13 outings dating back to a Champions League qualifier against Sarajevo in mid-July would be further evidence to support the argument that Neil Lennon has managed to find a way of playing in Europe that eluded predecessor Brendan Rodgers.
For all the latter’s undoubted achievements, there were often struggles in games against foreign opposition that were only partly attributable to the higher standard of opposition. Rodgers qualified for the Champions League group stage in his first two seasons. Lennon’s return has certainly sparked an upturn in away form.
The victory over Lazio earlier this month in Rome, which followed a 2-1 win over the same side at Parkhead, means Celtic can secure top spot in Europa League Group E if they collect all three points against Rennes and Cluj lose away to Lazio.
Callum McGregor believes the team are benefitting from Lennon’s European experience as both a player and manager.
Asked if Lennon was bolder than Rodgers on such occasions, he said: “He could be.” The results, he added, speak for themselves.
“We went to Lazio and I think people hoped rather than had any expectation but when you deliver a result like that it changes everyone’s mindset,” he said.
“That’s what we have to do now as a team in Europe. We have been great domestically and that is still our bread and butter, we still have to look after that, but I think in Europe now we probably have enough experience where we can really go and try to do something.
“He (Lennon) is brilliant,” he added. “You hear him talking all the time. Obviously, we know the European games are different games, you have slightly less of the ball. But you hear him talking about how we must still always have a threat, we have to try and score.
“When you score, especially away from home now, it puts you in a really good position to win the game, so it’s a bit of that. You can defend without the ball but you still have to have an avenue to score a goal. Once you score a goal it changes the whole dynamic of the game. So, I think that side of it he seems to be really clued up about.”
The onus is now on finishing top of the group, which should provide Celtic with a more a more winnable draw in the last 32. It would also be the first time Celtic have ever topped a European group.
“We have learned harsh lessons in the last couple of years when we have managed to get through but finish second and get a Champions League team, which obviously makes it difficult,” said McGregor, left.
“If you try to qualify top, then it’s that playing equal opponents thing. It is big for us. We know we have to finish the job. We have two games to finish top. That’s where we want to be.”