Well, I don’t think any of us expected that, did we?
Despite Neil Lennon rightfully giving youth a chance in terms of his starting XI given that the game held no importance at all for Celtic, it would be wrong to say you couldn’t hear the groans echo from miles away when the line-ups came out.
A Bhoys’ debut for Conor Hazard, alongside starts for the ever-faulting Shane Duffy and the inexperienced David Turnbull and Ismaila Soro – who made his first start in the famous green and white – looked set to be a recipe for disaster with doubts about how the team would gel.
“Another loss impending!” seemed to be the general consensus of the Celtic support, given not only the season’s poor demeanour, but also how determined Lille would’ve been to top the group and ultimately make their route to Gdansk that little bit easier.
Les Dogues even named a relatively full-strength XI, too. The free-scoring Yusuf Yazici and marquee signing Jonathan David were given the reins upfront, whilst ex-Bhoy Timothy Weah and the ever creative Jonathan Ikone were deployed on the wings, with the latter looking to repeat his goalscoring exploits against the Hoops in France just over a month ago.
Yet, against the odds, Lennon’s men managed to grab their first – and ultimately only – win in the group stages of European Football this season. This was a team which was hardly expected to turn over the then-leaders of Group H, yet they did so with aplomb, playing with flair, courage, assertiveness and overall a sense of fearlessness that has been lacking majorly at Paradise this season.
Why, of all times, had the players decided to turn up NOW? After two months of mediocrity in which every game counted for atleast something, it was typical that the first time they turned up is when they were plied with the task of playing a dead rubber.
In essence, this was probably the reason why the team did so well.
A fresh, young side who – in terms of their personal careers – did have something to prove. A chance to appear on the continental stage, with the comfort that the result didn’t entirely matter in the end, somewhat turned out to be a blessing in disguise. For what seemed like the first time in well over ten games, Celtic went out onto the pitch with fire in their bellies – the youthful side, after all, had nothing to lose, and so there would be no commiserations about their playing style following the game. With the away side feeling the pressure of solidifying the top spot, the Bhoys’ players converged like vultures to ‘prise the prize’ away from their French counterparts.
In particular, it was the midfield players who serially impressed last night; none more so than Ismaila Soro, who based on last night’s cameo already seems like a more than capable replacement for Scott Brown. Obviously, the Ivorian has a lot to do if he is going to be Broony’s successor, but Celtic fans’ will be hard pressed to remember a better full European debut for their beloved club in recent times.
Turnbull was magnificent, too – marking his fine European debut with a goal and an assist, and following Callum McGregor’s imbalanced performance, he was the man in the engine room who took the bull by the horns and led his side to victory under the lights at Parkhead.
A special mention also goes out to Conor Hazard, who despite not having much to do, looked extremely solid for the large part – and the young Northern Irishman looks no worse than summer signing Vasilis Barkas, who looks more like a waste of money with every passing day.
It tends to beg the question; having seen what this young side can do against France’s second-placed side – who have only lost once all season – then why can they not do the same against the unremarkable opposition they take on week in week out in Scotland? Obviously, it can come down to experience; players such as McGregor and Broony provide priceless leadership on the stage where it really matters, but having gone on a two-month long barren spell of results, has the young side earned their right to force their way back into the title race against theRangers?
It will be extremely interesting to see what the starting XI will be in the lead-up to the Killie game, but it would not surprise me – nor half the fanbase – if we saw a very similar, young and hungry side as we did on Thursday night; they’ve deserved it.