Celtic confirmed top spot in Europa League Group E with one game to spare after a comfortable win over Rennes.
The victory, coupled with Lazio’s 1-0 victory over CFR Cluj, means Neil Lennon’s side will avoid Champions League dropouts in February’s last 32.
Lewis Morgan’s second Celtic goal and a Ryan Christie effort had the hosts in control, and Mikey Johnston added to the tally with a superb one-two finish.
Adrien Hunou’s glancing header provided a late consolation for the French side.
Celtic will conclude their campaign in Romania against Cluj in two weeks in a game that is now a dead rubber.
‘Feel-good night for Celtic machine’
Celtic could afford to do without Odsonne Edouard – he had “a niggle” – and still have this Europa League tie in the bag by the break. These are heady days for Lennon’s side, a group that has transformed itself since elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Cluj. That failure seems like an eternity ago.
This is a team on the up and up and another feel-good night for Celtic in Europe. Rennes might have had no chance of progressing out of the group and they may be on a run of just two wins in 11 games, but they’re a decent outfit that were made to look ordinary for the most part.
Olivier Ntcham and Scott Brown were impressively influential in the middle of the park, Christie was his usual buzz-bomb in attack and Morgan – playing in alien territory as Edouard’s replacement – was excellent. When James Forrest came off, Johnston went on and his goal was the pick of the bunch. All three goalscorers were young Scottish players, none of them a day over 24.
Fraser Forster had his saves to make – one early on from Romain Del Castillo and a double block later on that was outstanding – but Celtic were great value for their victory and thoroughly deserving of winning the group. With that triumph comes the prize of a place in the last 32 as a seeded team.
There’s still a game to play in the group and Brown will miss it through suspension. He won’t care a jot. The work has been done. The captain can recharge the batteries at home that night.
Celtic went ahead when Forrest came in from the left and played it into Morgan, whose timing and precision were perfect. He swept it home with aplomb. The second came just before the break when Brown showed his standard determination to win a header which found its way to Christie.
The midfielder, knocking on for a goal every other game this season, took a look up and thumped one on target, the ball bouncing in front of going behind Edouard Mendy. The fault lay with the goalkeeper, but Christie’s strike was pure all the same. What an essential part of this Celtic machine he has become.
The visitors threatened early in the new half but they couldn’t get the better of Forster despite having two stabs at it from point-blank range. The first one from Diafra Sakho bounced straight back off the colossus, the second one, from Theoson Siebatcheu was touched on to the post. The Rennes players could scarcely believe it.
Morgan had a strong penalty claim waved away when Mendy looked to have brought him down, but with 15 minutes left Celtic added their third and it was a beauty.
Johnston hadn’t long come on the field for his first appearance since the first day of September, but when he played it to Ntcham and then took it back off him in the box, Rennes were done in. The speed of thought and speed of movement was too much, as was the finish, firmly put away to Mendy’s right. Wonderful.
Lennon brought on Leigh Griffiths towards the end and the striker almost made it four only for his effort to be kicked away by Mendy. The place would have erupted had he scored.
Rennes got a consolation through a fine header from Hunou, but it didn’t put the slightest dent on Celtic’s night. Another step forward in an exciting and still developing European story.
Man of the match – Olivier Ntcham
For filling in so impressively for Edouard, Morgan is a worthy contender, but Ntcham was terrific out there. Clever, impactful, defensively strong and offensively creative, the Frenchman had a big say in this fine victory.
- Celtic have avoided defeat in each of their first five group stage games to a Champions League/Europa League campaign for the first time.
- They have won four consecutive games in major European competitions (excluding qualifiers) for the first time since November 2002 in the Uefa Cup.
- Rennes have lost four consecutive Europa League matches, their worst such streak in all European competitions since December 2005.
- Forrest has been directly involved in three goals in his last four Europa League games – as many as he had in his previous 23 appearances in the competition.
- Christie’s goal was Celtic’s first from outside the box in a major European competition (excluding qualifiers) since Callum McGregor against Ajax in the Europa League in November 2015.