Wednesday 23 October 2019

Rejuvenated Celtic primed for shot at European redemption

Celtic's Neil Lennon instructs his players during Saturday's Scottish Premiership victory over Hamilton at New Douglas Park. Photo: Jeff Holmes/PA Wire
Celtic's Neil Lennon instructs his players during Saturday's Scottish Premiership victory over Hamilton at New Douglas Park. Photo: Jeff Holmes/PA Wire

Roddy Forsyth

Despite the flak aimed at Neil Lennon when Celtic were ambushed in a Champions League qualifier by CFR Cluj last month, Hoops fans whose memories stretch back to his first spell as manager should be experiencing a sense of deja vu.

Saturday's Scottish Premiership victory at Hamilton not only extended their perfect record but was the first time since 2010/2011 that Celtic have begun with five consecutive league wins.

As fate would have it, Celtic will begin their Europa League group stage on Thursday away to Rennes, where Lennon also supervised a 1-1 draw in the same tournament in October, 2011.

The Scottish champions will travel in good spirits, despite what proved ultimately to be an awkward weekend trip to the Fountain of Youth Stadium.

A rout had looked on the cards after James Forrest put Celtic ahead after three minutes - although the goal would have been subject to scrutiny for offside were VAR to be employed in Scotland - but Hamilton did not concede during what remained of the first half, although the time passed with the league leaders camped almost entirely in their territory.

It took a fine fingertip save by Owain Fon Williams, who turned a Forrest effort on to his crossbar after the break, to prevent Accies from falling further behind and the home side actually finished the stronger. Celtic's unease was personified by the last kick of the ball, a punted clearance into the stands by Kris Ajer.

That occurred at the end of five minutes of stoppage time, added because of prolonged treatment to Christopher Jullien, who clashed heads with Accies' substitute striker, Marios Ogkmpoe.

Lennon joked afterwards that Jullien had suffered a momentary blackout and had subsequently mistaken him for Boris Becker. Had the central defender been unconscious, Celtic would have been obliged to remove him, at a point when they had already used all three substitutes, but a club spokesman said later that Lennon had been mistaken about a blackout having occurred.


Certainly, Jullien appeared to be compos mentis when he resumed action and according to Lennon, should be "fine for Rennes".

The Frenchman had contributed to Celtic's third clean sheet in the league and, along with Boli Bolingoli at left-back and Hatem Elhamed on the right, was a summer import.

Hamilton's artificial surface and a crowd of 5,000 presented the most marked contrast with Celtic's previous league outing in an Old Firm derby, which was watched by 50,000 and played on an immaculate Ibrox pitch.

The variety of demand and spectacle in Scotland's top tier was not lost on Elhamed, who played at centre-back at Ibrox.

"The game with Rangers was one of the toughest and biggest of my career," said the Israeli, who played for his country in Euro 2020 qualifiers against Slovenia and Macedonia between the SPFL away games.

"You have to adapt to the different conditions, whether it is against Rangers with 50,000 or against Hamilton with a small crowd.

"We just had to win this game and we showed a strong mentality. We got the job done and now we look forward to the game against Rennes.

"The conditions were not the best but you have to respect the opposition and the pitch."

Accies' defeat means that they dropped into a dogfight involving five teams covered by four points, the others being Hibernian, St Mirren, St Johnstone and Hearts.

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