It’s 13 August 2019 and the final whistle goes after a bruising encounter that saw Celtic’s Champions League hopes lie in tatters. For the sixth time in ten years Celtic would not be involved in Europe’s top competition. For every single Celtic supporter it stung.
A 4-3 home defeat to Cluj was unexpected. Celtic had been playing well, considering yet again the recruitment process had been painfully slow and lacking in any real urgency. It was clear behind the scenes a malaise had set in and it took Lee Congerton’s exit and the appointment on an initial short term fix of Nick Hammond before any real planning took place.
It was a movie we’d all seen before and it smacked of neglect. The Green Brigade made their feelings known and Peter Lawwell would know where many of the rank and file laid the blame for this debacle.
Throughout the qualifying campaign Neil Lennon was having to utilise the squad the best he could with gaps at full back in particular a concern. This was highlighted throughout the qualifying campaign with Kris Ajer shifted to right back and Callum McGregor operating at left full back against Cluj.
No matter how much blame was laid at the door of the Celtic board and their pre-season inaction, Neil Lennon felt the first real force of criticism coming his way. Although the force of anger from supporters was frustration at previous season’s as well as this, some of Lennon’s tactical decisions, choices of positions and starting line-up lay with the manager. His in game management when we had leads to defend was questioned as were his substitutions. In the main that criticism was fully justified.
Even taking into account the slow recruitment and the lack of defensive options in particular, the cold hard facts remained. Celtic had done the hard bit. They’d gone to Cluj and they’d got a draw away from home as well as getting an all-important away goal. A home tie at Celtic park with the personnel at his disposal should have seen Celtic progress. That particular result in isolation pointed to errors of judgement that cost Celtic a play-off place at least.
Celtic as a result dropped into the Europa League play-offs it was an anti-climax to say the least but then again we’d been here before. The concern now was could we at least get to the Europa play off and look to some sort of European football in the season ahead?
What has happened since has been as unexpected as that Cluj result but in a far more positive sense.
Celtic were drawn against Swedish champions AIK and it must be said made light work of what we assumed would be a close encounter. Winning 2-0 at home the Celts followed up with a fantastic confidence inspiring 4-1 win in Stockholm. The Europa group stages beckoned.
When the groups were announced it had a feel of the top table about it. An immediate chance to gain revenge on Cluj arose as they were pulled out the hat alongside Celtic and there was some glamour with French Cup Holders Rennes and Italian giants Lazio also drawn in the same group.
This was going to be one tough group to progress from but it was as exciting a section as we could hope for given the circumstances.
The transfer window closed for Celtic at the start of September. By then the recruitment was well and truly up and running. Moritz Bauer and Hatem abd Elhamed were recruited with a young Jeremy Frimpong as cover. At left full back Boli Bolingoli was now supported by Greg Taylor and a young Lee O’Connor had come in from Man Utd to offer cover right along a backline that already had Christopher Jullien in as a £7million marquee signing. Goalkeeper Fraser Forster returned home from Southampton on loan.
Further forward the left wing area that Lennon had requested receive serious attention saw the arrival of Mohamed Elyounoussi on a season long loan deal, a player Southampton had paid £15million for only a year before. We knew what we were getting as he’s performed and scored against Celtic in previous European campaign.
Suddenly Celtic, on the back of those AIK results and of course a 2-0 win at Ibrox on 1 September were brimming with confidence. This has resulted in Celtic’s best ever European Group stage performance.
What started positively with a Ryan Christie inspired performance in a 1-1 draw away from home against Rennes was quickly followed up with a 2-0 win and more than a few ghosts exorcised against Cluj at Celtic Park with a first half goal from Odsonne Edoard was added to in the second half by Elyounoussi.
The next two encounters were the standouts of the season. A late Christopher Jullien header gave Celtic a home win in the first of a massive double header with Italian giants Lazio.
What happened in Rome eclipsed all that. Behind early to a Ciro Immobile goal Celtic showed they had grown massively as a team since the Cluj debacle. It was the night, if anyone had any lingering doubts left around Neil Lennon, that they were fully expelled.
James Forrest equalised before half time and an amazing second half performance was rewarded with a winning goal in the dying embers by Olivier Ntcham. It was Celtic’s first win in European competition on Italian soil.
Celtic had qualified with a two games to spare. Rewind to 13th of August and such thoughts of winning in Rome and progressing from such a competitive group, had they been uttered publicly would have been met with derision.
Celtic finished the job when winning the group and ensuring they were seeded for the last 32 with a 3-1 home win over Rennes at Celtic Park.
Celtic come full circle tonight and return to Transylvania. The Celts need only turn up and play for the shirt. The consequences of the result are immaterial to us.
As a club we have come an awful long way in just four months. Domestically we sit two points clear at the top of the league. Neil Lennon’s side has just won the first domestic trophy of the season defeating ‘the’ Rangers at Hampden in the League Cup final on Saturday.
In Europe however is where we all want Celtic to be performing. Our record over the last few years has often seen criticism levelled at us and for a club of Celtic’s size it’s hard not to say that criticism hasn’t been justified.
Tonight when we see the fringe players and the next generation representing Celtic against Cluj it would be a good moment to simply reflect at just how far we’ve come in four short months.
From the debacle in Cluj in August has come the regeneration of Celtic’s reputation in Europe. Whatever happens tonight it won’t have any impact on that reputation. That is banked.
Neil Lennon, the players and supporters have been on a long and steep incline since August and credit to Lenny, his coaching staff and players for that. They have exceeded expectations entirely. So much so I’m sure a successful December may well see a lot of pressure on Mr Lawwell to sign Lenny up on a new contract and protect the club’s position. Just as Brendan received.
That is for another day. Tonight Celtic will officially go to the last 32 of the Europa League as group champions. We’ll also have European pride restored. What a journey it has been.