Celtic secured top spot in Europa League Group E with a game to spare after an assured win over Rennes last night.
What looked from the outset to be a group filled with danger has proven to be anything but. After drawing their opening game, The Hoops have waltzed through by winning their next four. Qualification was already sealed, but by earning first place Celtic have ensured they will be one of the seeded teams in the last-32 draw.
Neil Lennon now has the luxurious option of resting key players for the dead rubber with Cluj in two weeks. Ahead of a crowded December fixture list, that could prove vital. Here are three things we learned from last night’s match:
1. Resting Odsonne Edouard was the smart decision
The Frenchman’s absence from the 18-man squad was the big surprise when the line-up was announced. Edouard has become the most irreplaceable member of the first team. Every other spot in the squad (barring maybe central defence) has great competition. However, with Vakoun Issouf Bayo injured and Leigh Griffiths lacking match fitness, Edouard has a huge responsibility as the main striker.
His exploits last season in heaving Celtic to the Treble Treble with two goals in the Scottish Cup final proved he is more than capable of dealing with that pressure. But relying so much on one player can be dangerous; it makes sense to rest him when given the chance.
Lennon claimed after the game Edouard had “a niggle” but didn’t expand and hinted he would be ok for the weekend. With no margin for error in an extremely tight title race and the League Cup final coming up in nine days, this was entirely the right choice. The excellent result without him merely added to the justification.
2. Young Scottish talent proving their worth
This was another display full of verve from the Scottish champions. Epitomising that was the performances of Greg Taylor (aged 22) and goalscorers Lewis Morgan (23) and Mikey Johnston (20).
Morgan had probably his best outing in a Celtic strip despite playing in an unfamiliar role upfront. His first-time finish broke the deadlock and he linked well with James Forrest and Ryan Christie throughout. Some supporters met his inclusion in the line-up with derision, but he repaid the faith of his manager and was the best player on the pitch according to Whoscored.
Johnston returned from a near two-month layoff with a dynamic second-half cameo. The winger combined brilliantly with Olivier Ntcham before drilling in Celtic’s last and best goal of the night. The Lennoxtown youth academy has produced some fantastic talent over the last decade and Johnston put in a timely reminder that he is up there with the best of them.
Taylor, meanwhile, slotted in seamlessly at left-back. The summer signing from Kilmarnock played a key role in the move that led to the opening goal with a fine threaded pass for James Forrest who subsequently crossed for Morgan to finish. A chance has now presented itself for him to nail down that spot as his own. His main competitors Boli Bolingoli (hamstring) and Jonny Hayes (shoulder) are currently on the injury list. After patiently waiting on the sidelines for the last three months, this is his time to shine.
Forrest, Calum McGregor and Ryan Christie already make up a core of the Scotland national squad. Taylor has recently broken through to join them and it may not be long before the other two follow suit.
3. Brown risking more than just a one-game ban
Scott Brown’s 55th-minute booking was perhaps the least surprising moment of the night. The Celtic captain went into the game knowing he was one yellow card away from an enforced absence. He will now serve that suspension in the final, meaningless group game rather than risking it carrying over to the knockout stage.
A cynical and cunning strategy, yet one that could incur the wrath of UEFA. Only last season, Sergio Ramos was handed an extended two-game ban after being found guilty of deliberately receiving a yellow card during Real Madrid’s Champions League tie with Ajax. Ramos’ defence was severely undermined by his post-match admission of guilt, but the parallels with Brown are obvious.
The way he needlessly slammed through the back of Lea Siliki leaves his intentions very open to interpretation. The fact it happened with Celtic already cruising with a two-goal lead and just after an off the ball coming together with a separate Rennes player only adds to the suspicion. Brown now faces an anxious wait to discover if this is an incident UEFA wish to investigate further.