The finest showing of Celtic’s season counts for little in the context of a competition they had already been eliminated from. This win over Lille could, though, deliver much needed impetus for a domestic campaign which has lurched towards crisis point for the manager Neil Lennon.
Lille, who had already qualified for the knockout stage, had to settle for Milan winning Group H as Celtic claimed a hugely entertaining encounter by the odd goal in five.
Lennon had, as predicted, made wholesale changes to his team. Conor Hazard, the 22-year-old Northern Irishman, made his debut in goal while there were starts for Ismaila Soro, David Turnbull, Patryk Klimala and the much-maligned Shane Duffy.
After a tame start to proceedings, Klimala stung the palms of Mike Maignan with a fierce shot from 19 yards. This rather set the tone for a manic seven-minute spell in which Celtic took the lead, conceded it then edged back in front through a Callum McGregor penalty.
Christopher Jullien opened the scoring with a glancing header from Turnbull’s superb corner. Ninety seconds did not pass between Lille kicking off and Hazard fetching the ball out of his net. McGregor carelessly lost possession, with Yusuf Yazici’s subsequent cross turned home by Jonathan Ikoné.
In what was to prove Jeremie Frimpong’s last act of the game, the former Manchester City player won a penalty despite apparently kicking Domagoj Bradaric instead of the ball. Not that Lille’s protests were particularly vehement. As Frimpong limped off, McGregor atoned for his earlier error by slotting into Maignan’s bottom left-hand corner. During this period when crumbs of comfort are necessary and defensive blunders an ominous constant, Lennon could take heart from reaching the interval at 2-1.
McGregor was thrust into the spotlight once more having deflected Cheikh Niasse’s volley on to a post. That 62nd minute attack was Lille’s first of consequence in the second period, as emphasised how strongly the home side were performing. Lille entered this tie having lost just once in all competitions all season.
The ghosts of fixtures past were soon to haunt Celtic. Duffy could only partially clear an inswinging free kick from Yazici with Timothy Weah, once a Celtic loanee, slamming the loose ball beyond Hazard.
Celtic’s reply ensured a memorable European debut for Turnbull. The midfielder, still edging his way back from a serious knee injury, strode forward to meet Kristoffer Ajer’s cross. His finish, and general play, served as sharp reminders of his talent. Celtic have been reacquainted with winning.