On the shores of Brittany — OK, a little further inland, perhaps — the Bhoys in Green started the next chapter of their Europa League hunt with a draw at Stade Rennes. While the Celts played far above par and should have come away with the win (more on this later, of course), the 1-1 final proved that Christopher Jullien may be on to something: That Celtic has arrived in Europe with serious intent to go far.
That might sound funny coming as a result of a draw, but allow me to point out five things to state my case. And then I will gladly leave it to a jury of my peers to decide.
In no particular order . . .
1. Kristoffer Ajer, put on this dunce cap
Truth be told, my guess is that no one feels as bad about that, um, “tackle” in the box than Kristoffer Ajer does. Judging by the kind of player he is, I will grant him that, and my hope is that he doesn’t beat himself up too much over it.
But dude, really?
If we were back in my fifth grade classroom at Holy Family School in suburban Miami — with Sister Julianna wielding the mean ruler which, by this time, is surely encased in its own exhibit in the Nun Hall of Fame — she would probably sternly say, as only she could, “Kristoffer. Vassbakk. Ajer. Please. Stand. Up.” At which time, the mighty Viking, humbled, would stand up and be ushered to the “desk of doom” at the front of the class, where he would sit and complete his punishment. More than likely, it would be writing, “I will not grab an opponent’s jersey and drag him down in the box” 500 times, and then he’d be sent to confession at the church next door, where he’d probably get the standard penance of 10 Hail Marys from Msgr. Delaney.
But I’m sure he feels bad enough about it as it is, and I would spare him the Catholic school treatment. Suffice to say, though: Kris, you’re an ace in the defense — you don’t need to resort to that.
Lesson learned. Class dismissed.
2. Who are these guys in black?
I know, I know. Chapter and verse from Jock Stein: “If you’re good enough, the referee doesn’t matter.” But I’d be willing to bet that somewhere in the ether of the afterlife, Big Jock was looking down on the game on Thursday and saying, “Damn! Are you kidding me?”
According to ESPN, and I don’t think these stats are official (though I’d be glad to post official stats if someone can give me a link), Celtic committed 23 fouls to Rennes’ 12, which only explains how the game was not so much a Europa League match for the hosts, but in reality a qualification for the French Olympic diving team.
An entirely Spanish referee squad, led by some dope named Jose Sanchez, would not be worthy of overseeing a under-13 tryout, let alone a UEFA Europa League match. The card-happy Sanchez went out of his way to lose control of the game, only to fall victim to an Oscar-winning performance by Rennes goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, whose face was nowhere near Bayo’s foot when the second yellow for Bayo was drawn out of Sanchez’s incompetent pocket.
[Chris Sutton even agrees with me on this one . . . .]
Seriously. Where do they get these guys?
3. Who are these guys in red and black?
First, this needs saying: As I understand it, Stade Rennes is France’s champion. We are Scotland’s. Yet, here we are, both of us in what is essentially the “consolation prize” round of continental football.
Be that as it may, to Celtic’s credit and despite a 52-48 percent ball possession advantage to Rennes, the home team spent a significant portion of its time on its heels. With a couple of remote exceptions, Rennes could not break through, and got a gift that keeps on giving — at least for 90+ minutes — from Ajer in their only real scoring opportunity.
Despite an earlier exit in that other tournament, the fact that we’re now firing on all cylinders, where once we weren’t, is a testament to how good Celtic has become at this Europe thing. True, it didn’t come earlier, and that’s unfortunate. But this is where we are now.
One more thing: Sorry, Rennes, but your kit looks like the joker on a deck of playing cards. Is that really the look you want to go with?
4. Jonny Hayes, take a bow
True story: On my free time (and because I don’t have much of a life outside watching Celtic and political organizing in local peace and social justice activities), I like to watch old clips of Celtic games on YouTube. A couple of days ago, I happened upon the 2017 Scottish Cup final (I think) where Jonny Hayes was tearing up the pitch for Aberdeen against the Bhoys. I kept thinking, “Thank God he’s playing for us now.”
Today, that thought was especially at the forefront, as he came in for Boli Bolingoli and took control. Hayes is truly an unsung hero for the Celts, and I hope he has a chance to get some playing time with Boli now injured. Of course, Greg Taylor may have something to say about that, but as far as an all around utility player and pretty much a godsend to Celtic, Hayes is second to none.
And that tackle in the second half on Hamari Traore? That was outstanding; it was Simunovic-on-Miller caliber. Though Traore does not exactly join Miller in orbit, it was one of those tackles they should show in clinics worldwide about how tackles should be executed.
5. Keep talking, Christopher Jullien
Earlier in the week, Christopher Jullien said that the Celts will go far in the UEFA Europa League competition. Many thought it was just locker room rah-rah enthusiasm, possibly aimed at lifting his teammates for the immediate task at hand on Thursday. Some may have thought he made an overconfident boast. Others still may have thought he was just plain nuts.
Regardless, he was right. Under Neil Lennon’s steady hand and with a group of phenomenal players who are beginning to gel under his leadership, Celtic is starting to show its true colors — sorry, colours — as we head into both the SPFL season and whatever continental tournaments are part and parcel to this year’s schedule.
In conclusion, despite all the aforementioned adversity in Thursday’s game, the Bhoys came away with a solid game and a draw that, arguably, should have been a win, but could have gone wrong very easily, through no fault of their own.
I’ll take it.
Your Honor — sorry, My Lord — I rest my case.
[71 degrees. Wildfire threat level today in rural Santa Cruz County: High]