It was result that ensured the human cargo inside the wagons did not have to disembark. The outcome made the occasion a red-letter day, not another of the red alert Sundays the Parkhead club have endured of late to have their fans descending on the stadium with their metaphorical pitchforks.
The ‘back the team, sack the board’ Celtic Trust protest before kick-off meant the day was not without a demonstration. Mercifully, for Lennon it was not the only one. His players demonstrated that they aren’t simply the failing, feckless bunch they have appeared for so much of the past two months. They showed they can play with a lick of style, and even - shock - prevent their opponents from scoring.
A first clean sheet in nine games, a first home success in domestic football in six games and, following on from the 3-2 victory over Lille at Parkhead on Thursday, the first time they have secured back-to-back wins since the opening days of October, it feels Lennon and his men have picked themselves off the canvas in recent days.
Hazard, Soro and Turnbull
That has been achieved because of the Celtic manager’s inclusion of, what have proved, punchy performers against the French and the Ayrshire side. He retained David Turnbull, Ismaila Soro and keeper Conor Hazard following the freshness and drive with which they inbued a Celtic on their knees after the draw at home to St Johnstone a week ago. Another slip that left them with only two wins from 12 games.
In a matter of four days, they have doubled their win quota since mid-October. And that wasn’t just all to do with Lennon being rewarded for keeping faith with Turnbull, Soro and Hazard, a trio that injected their team with drive and confidence once again. It was also to do with Lennon’s holding on to the belief that he can get a turn out of the universally-filleted Shane Duffy. It was notable that when Turnbull - as he has consistently across his two recent appearances - crafted another fine deadball delivery, to drop a corner on to the head of the Repulbic of Ireland captain to bury for Celtic’s decisive 70th-minute second goal, he was engulfed by all his team-mates.
Commitment, character and competence of the entire Celtic squad and their management team has been understandably questioned as they have found themselves 13-points adrift of Rangers, who have played two games more, in a quagmire quest for an historic 10th title. Yet, they have shown all these facets in lancing Lille and a typically troublesome Rugby Park opponent. Evidenced by the fact that only once in the past three years have they beaten them by a greater margin than two goals. With Turnbull a blur of invention and intent, and Soro grafting for possession, Celtic had a different complexion to them even as they struggled to get on top of a visiting side that had lost four of their past five Premiership matches.
They spread the play better, had more rhythm and precision to their attacks. But for Danny Rodgers making smart blocks from Turnbull, twice, and Jullien, while Odsonne Edouard was wasteful with two gilt-edged opportunities Celtic would not have had to wait until the 57th minute to translate their dominance into a lead. When the opener did arrive, it was of the untidy variety. The beavering Mohamed Elyounoussi exhibited balance and acceleration to carve his way off the left flank and along the edge of the penalty box before letting fly. Then came a bounce around, with his effort grazing Duffy and Aaron McGowan to divert past the Kilmarnock keeper. It was still the Norwegian’s goal, no doubt, and took his tally to eight goals in only 11 outings.
Cup final dilemma
The final act to cheer Lennon came with Hazard showing alertness to pull off a point-blank save from Kirk Broadfoot in the closing minutes. It could be a save that guarantees the 22-year-old Irishman a place in next Sunday’s Scottish Cup final against Hearts. Lennon will now have much to ponder about who plays in front of the Northern Ireland under-21. He hinted post-match that he feels a sense of duty to captain Scott Brown, whose contribution to the club being on the verge of a quadruple treble. Lennon cautioned before the Kilmarnock game that the emergence of Turnbull and Soro didn’t suddenly mean the creation of a ‘new age’ Celtic team, but the £3.5m summer signing from Motherwell has breathed such life into the Scottish champions, it would seem contrary to drop him for Hampden. Likewise with Hazard, even if Ivorian Soro gives way for Brown.
If not for the backdrop, Celtic’s display against Alex Dyer’s team would have seemed the sort of bog-standard harvesting of three points they carried off for ever and a day. And it will exasperate Lennon that such straightforward victories have proved so elusive. The floggings in Europe, the League Cup failing against Ross County, all of these would have been forgiven had Celtic maintained their early Premiership form over the past two months. Instead, seven straight league wins gave way to only six points being acrued from their next five ahead of a Kilmarnock success that at least allowed so many officers of the law to stay warm inside their vehicles.
Celtic: Hazard: Ajer, Jullien, Duffy, Taylor (Laxalt 80); Frimpong (Christie 70), Soro, McGregor, Elyounoussi (Johnston 86); Turnbull (Rogic 80); Edouard (Klimala 70). Subs: Barkas, Brown, Griffiths, Ajeti.
Kilmarnock: Rogers, McGowan, Broadfoot, Findlay, Haunstrup; Kiltie (Burke 68), Tshibola, McKenzie, Power, Pinnock (Mulumbu 70): Kabamba (Brophy 79). Subs: Doyle, Waters, Ibsen Rossi, Taylor, Whitehall.