It was Brendan Rodgers’ one weakness… but Neil Lennon has found European edge as Celtic boss
It’s hard to remember many epic European nights on foreign soil when Brendan Rodgers managed Celtic.
A 1-1 draw in Monchengladbach back in November 2016 promised a new era of overseas adventure.
Rodgers sat in the media centre of Borussia Park that night and spoke in bullish tones of engaging the best teams on the continent in unarmed combat. Celtic, he claimed, could be a fixture in the last 16 of the Champions League within three years.
Neil Lennon celebrates after Celtic secured a dramatic late victory over Lazio
Back-to-back draws with Manchester City raised hopes he’d be good for the money. A 3-0 win over Anderlecht in Brussels suggested he was edging closer.
But when it came to UEFA competition, the Rodgers era was riddled with false dawns.
He could always talk the talk. Walking the walk was a different matter.
Rodgers asked his players to press high, stay calm and pass the ball to green and white shirts.
Brendan Rodgers looks dejected during Celtic’s 7-1 defeat at PSG in November 2017
Then watched on as Celtic lost one goal, panicked and fell to bits. Time after time.
They shipped five goals at home to Paris Saint-Germain. They lost seven on a night of mortifying humiliation in the French capital. And the less said about that 7-1 defeat in Barcelona or tumble-dryer nights in Astana and Be’er Sheva the better.
All of which explains why Thursday night’s win over Lazio felt like a break-out moment for Scotland’s champions.
The Europa League is a pale imitation of UEFA’s premier competition. Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe wouldn’t leave their bed for a game at 6pm on a Thursday night.
Yet Celtic’s first win on Italian soil was the night the Rodgers blueprint finally came through.
They lost an early goal and refused to fold like a pack of cheap playing cards. They were brave and adventurous in possession. They turned defence into attack with controlled, quick, one-touch football.
But the manager in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome was not Brendan Rodgers. Neil Lennon was back at the helm.
Ciro Immobile celebrates giving Lazio the lead against Celtic at the Stadio Olimpico
And, seven years since that win over Barcelona, Lennon is fast proving himself a better Celtic manager in Europe than Rodgers ever was.
There’s no great secret as to why. It’s not possible or realistic for a Celtic coach to adopt precisely the same tactical plan against the best teams from France, Spain and Italy as he might against, say, Hamilton Accies or St Mirren.
To deny Rodgers his due as an exceptional football manager would be foolish.. But his expansive idealism was both his greatest strength and his biggest weakness.
European football needs a degree of pragmatism. It needs the ability to recognise a team’s defensive limitations and adapt. Switching to a 3-5-2 formation the other night, Lennon’s side recovered from a ropey start to pull off a huge result.
James Forrest hammers home to bring Celtic level in the Europa League group stage match
That the Brodge established an era of unparalleled domestic dominance is beyond argument.
He revived Scott Brown. He improved players like James Forrest, Callum McGregor and Kristoffer Ajer. He persuaded the Celtic board to shell out £9million for Odsonne Edouard.
There were days and nights when his in-game management saw him earn every penny of his £2.4m-a-year salary.
Olivier Ntcham chips into the net as Celtic secured qualification to the knockout stages
But the price for all of that was excruciating nights in Europe. In Paris, Barcelona, Munich and Valencia, a club which revels in its status as one of the grand old teams of Europe was reduced to the status of a San Marino.
Rodgers gave Celtic supporters some of the greatest days of their life. And some of the most humiliating nights in their European history.
In three years in Glasgow, he never really claimed a signature win on one of the biggest stages.
He never humbled Messi’s Barcelona. Or secured a dramatic stoppage-time victory over a team of Lazio’s calibre away from home.