Glasgow sides move toward the knockout stages.
Thursday night saw Glasgow’s Europa League representatives win their respective games, as Celtic confirmed their place in the Europa League’s knockout stages, whilst Rangers kept a clean sheet at home to put themselves in the driving seat for their final two fixtures at home to Young Boys and away to Feyenoord.
Celtic were away in Rome for their reverse fixture against Lazio, and were given the early kick off. Although Lazio scored first, and Celtic manager Neil Lennon altered his starting 11 for the first time this season in Europe due to a suspected hamstring injury to Belgian fullback Boli Bolingoli after Celtic’s League Cup semi-final victory over Hibernian, the enforced change to the team worked.
At first glance it seemed Lennon had opted to play conservatively away in Rome, fearing the potency of Lazio’s Capocannoniere-chasing forward, Ciro Immobile, who was 13 league goals to his name this season, and subsequently deployed a 5-3-2 formation. The vacant left back position was taken by Johnny Hayes, deputising for the absent Bolingoli.
For a while it looked like Celtic were going to be up against it. Immobile scored within the first ten minutes of the match and Celtic had a proverbial mountain to climb. Although Celtic winger James Forrest, who recently signed a new contract with the Parkhead side, did equalise on the edge of half-time, Celtic went into the break with the score poised at 1-1. Neil Lennon’s tactical changes were a surprise to be sure, but a welcome one that aimed to keep Lazio’s forwards quiet and allow them to hit the Biancocelesti on the counter. Much of the second half saw Celtic under pressure from repeated Lazio attacks, the on-loan giant Fraser Forster was once again called into action, but no one of his saves were as remarkable as his stoppage-time save a fortnight ago that ensured Celtic kept all three points in Glasgow. It was fortuitous that Celtic scored their winner with essentially the last kick of the game, a sloppy pass from Lazio’s Valon Berisha was duly intercepted by Odsonne Eduoard, squared to Olivier Ntcham, who lovingly dinked the ball over the Lazio goalkeeper. A deft finish at the death, Olivier Ntcham was the coolest man in the Stadio Olimpico on Thursday evening as he won Celtic all three points in what was the cruellest way for Lazio to lose.
Rangers meanwhile were playing at home in the Europa League for the first time since their September victory over Feyenoord. Manager Steven Gerrard named an identical starting 11 from his sides’ previous encounter with Porto a fortnight ago, which ended 1-1 in the Estádio do Dragão. This time, however, it was a different story. Whilst Rangers’ forward Alfredo Morelos did score his 11th European goal of the season, Rangers’ left back Borna Barišić did not supply the Colombian for the opening goal of the game. Instead, he and the Rangers defence built on their defensive solidity, with Rangers last conceding a goal against Motherwell on 27 October in a 2-1 league victory, and kept their third consecutive clean sheet in their 2-0 victory over the Portuguese team.
The first-half remained goalless for both sides. Twice Porto went close to taking the lead, but were firstly thwarted by Glen Kamara clearing the ball of the line and secondly by a superb Allan McGregor save at the midpoint of the first-half. However, it took until the second half for Rangers to find their attacking rhythm and calibrate their shooting boots. Brandon Barker and Ryan Kent both fired first-half efforts well high of the Porto goal, before Scott Arfield was introduced for Rangers in the 65 minute and replaced Barker. As a result, Ryan Jack was given licence to move further up the field on the right hand side, whilst Arfield slotted into Jack’s prior position. This switch proved to be Porto’s undoing and Jack duly supplied Morelos with an assist for Rangers’ opening goal.
Later, Alfredo Morelos turned supplier for Rangers, cutting the ball back for midfield lynchpin Steven Davis to slot the ball past Porto’s Argentinian goalkeeper Marchesín and put the final nail in the proverbial Porto coffin. All three precious European points were staying at Ibrox, which now sees Rangers second in their group on seven points, tied with group G leaders Young Boys on both points and goal difference. On their head-to-head record separates the two sides. And with their final Europa League game against one another, group G is poised for a climactic showdown on 12 December.
In the meantime, however, 28 November will see both Glasgow sides return to their Europa League campaigns. Rangers are once again on the road as they seek to ensure their own qualification into the knockout stages against Feyenoord. Celtic meanwhile will seek to maximise co-efficient points for Scotland as they play host to French.