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Stephen Craigan: Old Firm have put Europe on red alert

Key roles: Gers’ Allan McGregor keeps Porto at bay
Key roles: Gers’ Allan McGregor keeps Porto at bay
Olivier Ntcham celebrates Celtic’s stoppage-time winner against Lazio in Italy
Stephen Craigan

By Stephen Craigan

Scottish football never fails to disappoint and what a night on Thursday in the Europa League for both halves of the Old Firm. The rest of European football firmly knows now that Celtic and Rangers are on the up.

Celtic put in a gargantuan effort to topple Lazio 2-1 in Rome with a wonderful performance. The late winner sealed progression into the last-32 with two games to spare and was the perfect way to finish off their very own Italian job.

As for Rangers, anything Celtic can do they can match. They produced a performance full of heart and character to beat the Portuguese giants Porto. They had to show the other side of their game and they did so in spades with Alfredo Morelos at the forefront of it all.

Neil Lennon was bold in his team selection as he changed the shape of his Celtic side to match up against Lazio with a back three.

In the early stages it looked like the gamble wouldn't pay off because the Celtic players looked timid, were too passive in their approach and lacked a spark.

The concession of the early goal didn't help and a victory looked a long way off at that stage.

But this Celtic team have shown great character and resilience in the face of adversity under Lennon. They had to ride their luck at times but they will have expected that, they hung in there and that can't be underestimated.

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The inspiration once again came from James Forrest, fresh from signing a new contract, just before half-time with a stunning finish to bring them level. Forrest has become Celtic's go-to player in big games and he didn't disappoint when his chance came.

The Celtic players grew in confidence from that moment on and the belief visibly flowed through the players.

Olivier Ntcham's 95th-minute winner clinched what was, incredibly, Celtic's first ever win on Italian soil at the 13th time of asking.

Qualifying for the last-32 with two games to spare is an incredible achievement for this team. They have beaten the group favourites Lazio home and away and fully deserve it.

This squad of players just keep writing their own history and Lennon said afterwards that it was a privilege to work with them. I'm sure the players feel the same about their manager because the job he's doing is nothing short of fantastic.

Rangers clearly weren't at their best against Porto for long spells but showed an incredible steeliness and desire to stay in the game that they previously wouldn't have had.

The double-header against Porto was always going to shape the group for Rangers, so to get four points from both games is an incredible achievement and puts them in a strong position to join Celtic in the last-32.

This result should give this Rangers squad a huge shot of confidence. They look better and better as the season is progressing.

Since Steven Gerrard arrived, Rangers have gradually improved and the supporters who were at Ibrox on Thursday night firmly believe success is just around the corner. Nights like that just add to their optimism.

Every team needs a talisman and Morelos once again proved he's the man for the big occasion. His goal was simply sensational as he dragged Rangers to three points. At times he cuts a frustrated figure but don't underestimate the happiness he brings to this Rangers team and support. A tally of 21 goals in 18 games this season is a wonderful return from a terrific player.

This season is really hotting up to be an absolute classic both domestically and in Europe for Scotland's big two. So simply sit back and enjoy the ride.

Belfast Telegraph


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