Celtic can hold their heads high after a 1-1 away draw with Rennes in the Europa League on Thursday evening.
The Bhoys started the 2019/20 campaign with the Champions League on their mind, but dropped down in the qualifying rounds and had to fight for their Europa League group stage spot.
At the same time, Celtic had begun the defence of their Scottish Premiership perfectly, winning their five opening league games so far including a 2-0 Old Firm win over rivals Rangers and 7-0 thumping of St Johnstone.
But as has been the case on so many occasions over the years, European football proved to be a different beast, with Celtic held to a draw in Rennes.
Signs of promise for Celtic
It was always going to be a tough ask for Celtic to get a result away to Rennes, with Julien Stéphan’s side having started the season well. This was something Neil Lennon was aware of, admitting his side would have to alter their game plan, saying: “You do have to assess those scenarios in terms of change of formation.
We’re not expecting to have the bulk of possession, which we normally have. Rennes are excellent on the ball and use the 3-5-2 system very well.
They’ve had some stellar results already this season- they’ve beaten PSG and sit second in Ligue 1, so we’ve given this game quite a bit of thought over the last few days and worked on a few things. The players are ready.”
But Celtic started the game confidently, with Odsonne Edouard looking particularly ready to hurt their hosts, and there were chances for the Bhoys to take the lead.
— Celtic Football Club (@CelticFC) September 19, 2019
The best chance of the first half for Celtic came with Boli Bolingoli running down the left flank before sending a teasing ball into the box. It was dummied well by Edouard but Mohamed Elyounoussi just could not get his toes onto the end of the cross, despite his best efforts.
Celtic didn’t allow their heads to drop upon going a goal behind and eventually got the opportunity they deserved to draw level as the game approached the hour mark.
After good work from Ryan Christie, James Forrest found himself on the ball inside the area. The Scot showed quick feet to baffle Rennes captain Damien Da Silva, who could do nothing but foul Forrest. Christie stepped up and beat the goalkeeper with his placement, giving Celtic reward for their domination at the start of the second half.
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Architects of their own downfall
For all their exciting play, Celtic went in at half-time behind, and it was a situation they could have avoided entirely.
Rennes had been threatening in the first half, though striker M’Baye Niang was being dealt with well by the Celtic centre-back pairing. But as the game neared half-time, Niang picked the ball up inside the box looking to take on Kristoffer Ajer.
Ajer looked capable of dealing with the striker, but was risking a penalty by holding onto Niang’s shirt as he pushed towards the byline. The centre-back then gave the referee no chance but to point to the spot in going to ground, missing the ball and catching Niang’s legs.
Niang stepped up and confidently dispatched the penalty, giving his side control of the game.
And it wasn’t just defensively that Celtic let themselves down. Midway through the first half, Edouard had a good run into the Rennes area, beating defenders with relative ease. But before he could have a chance to pull the trigger, the Frenchman went down under no challenge and was rightfully booked for simulation, wasting a good opportunity.
Even when Celtic took control of the game, before and after equalising, the Bhoys could not find a break through in open play, halted by a solid Rennes defence.
The result means Celtic’s amount of away group stage wins in the Europa League and Champions League remains at three in 46 games, with 12 draws and 31 defeats.
Rennes prove group is open
Rennes have been an interesting team to watch this season, starting Ligue 1 strongly. After five games, Rennes sit second in the table, just two points behind Paris Saint-Germain and have already beaten the defending champions.
They were expected to be in control of the game against Celtic, but opted for a more conservative approached, allowing their visitors to just about edge the possession of the ball.
This allowed Rennes to focus on the counter-attack, something they utilised breaking with pace, especially down the wings. Bolingoli was given a tough evening in particular with Flavien Tait and Raphinha enjoying themselves.
Rennes should have taken the lead earlier than they did as a result of fine wing play, with Clement Grenier heading wide after a poor Bolingoli header had played the home side in.
Julien Stéphan’s men also carried their fine defensive work over to the Europa League, having only conceded three goals in Ligue 1 so far. Despite lining up with a four-man defence, Rennes occasionally switched to five at the back when Celtic had the ball, with their midfielders almost taking it in turns to drop deep.
This frustrated their opponents, who were certainly looking for all three points, and gives Rennes something to build on for the rest of what is a very open group stage campaign.