Just when Neil Lennon needed it most Celtic’s fortunes finally took a Turn for the better.
This first win in five games came too late to salvage any hope of Europa League progress. That disappeared weeks ago.
Yet a first Celtic goal for £3.5million signing David Turnbull 15 minutes from time removed the acrid smell of cordite from the Glasgow air. And offered the under-fire Lennon some much-needed oxygen.
Celtic: (4-1-4-1): Hazard 6; Duffy 6 , Jullien 7, Ajer 7 (Welsh 87 1); Frimpong 5 (Henderson 29 6), Laxalt 7 , McGregor 5, Soro 7, Turnbull 8 (Rogic 86 1) ‘ Elyounoussi 6, Klimala 6 (Ajeti 78 2)
Subs: Barkas, Bain, Taylor, Brown, Griffiths, Edouard, Harper
Lille (4-4-2): Maignan 5; Bradaric 5, Djalo 5, Ponte 5 (Botman 45 5), Niasse 6 (Bamba 76) ; Weah 7 (Reinaldo 79 2) , Soumare 5 (Andre 67 3), Xeka 6, Ikone 6 (Lihadji 67 2); Yazici 7, David 6.
Subs: Karnezis, Chevalier, Yilmaz, Sanches, Reinildo, Innocenti
Granted a vote of confidence by the Parkhead board in midweek after two wins in 12 games, the Northern Irishman isn’t out of the woods yet. Not by a long stretch. Yet this was a victory likely to draw some of the sting from a planned protest by the Celtic Trust before Sunday’s home league match against Kilmarnock.
After weeks of laboured, dismal performances the boundless excellence of Turnbull allied to the energy of Ismael Soro on his first midfield start offered cautious grounds for optimism. God knows, Celtic fans have had few of those to crow over recently.
Comfortable winners in Prague and Milan a very decent Lille team sit second in Ligue One. This defeat a fatal blow to their hopes of claiming top spot in Group H ahead of Monday’s last 32 draw and represented a very decent scalp for a much changed Celtic team. This was comfortably the best result – and performance – of the season for Scotland’s champions.
Twice they led and twice they lost it. When former Celtic loan star Timo Weah hammered the second equaliser after 71 minutes you half expected them to crumble. On that score, in this competition, they have form.
Yet cometh the hour cometh the man. A first Celtic strike for Turnbull – his first goal of any description since August 12 – was a fine controlled finish after excellent work from makeshift right back Kristoffer Ajer.
For Lennon positives have been in short supply of late. Yet the energy and willing injected into Celtic’s play by Soro on his first start offered cautious grounds for optimism. Ditto the performance of £3m David Turnbull in his second first team start. Conor Hazard had a reasonable debut in goals while a shift of position for Ajer to right-back suggested the Norwegian might have found a new position.
A bewildering breathless opening half hour witnessed three of the five goals
Captain for the night in the absence of Scott Brown Callum McGregor was a contributor at both ends of the pitch, gifting Lille a sloppy equaliser before firing Celtic back into the lead from the penalty spot.
The good came with the scurrying run which teed up Celtic’s first attempt on goal as the game bursting into life without warning. Patryk Klimala – who put in an energetic display up front – fired in a thumping shot comfortably dealt with by the keeper Maignan.
Maintaining the attacking pressure, the second of two David Turnbull corners invited Frenchman Christopher Jullien to run off the defender Djalo and bullet a downward header down into the net. There were 22 minutes gone.
A Celtic lead in Europe rarely lasts long. Hopes of progress to the last 32 were extinguished after throwing away one winning advantage after another. A single point from five games came from a 2-2 draw in Lille where they led 2-0 after 32 minutes then squandered a winning position.
It took roughly two minutes for history to rhyme when a rare lapse from McGregor midway inside his own half was clinically punished.
The Scotland midfielder tried to deal with a moment of danger by hooking the ball back towards his own goal and mis-hit it. At this level errors rarely go unpunished, Yusuk Yazici needing no invitation to gather the ball and make headway on the left. A driven low cross slotted into the net by Jonathan Ikone for 1-1.
When Neil Lennon’s side lose a goal this season they rarely deal with the set-back well. This was the exception.
A breathless 28 minutes ended with the home side winning a penalty when Jeremie Frimpong was upended by Croatian defender Domagoj Bradaric as he shaped to shoot from 15 yards out.
The referee pointed to the spot and McGregor – the fall guy for Lille’s equaliser – atoned with a nerveless penalty kick. Maignan guessed right, the pace of the kick low into the bottom corner restoring Celtic’s lead.
Bundled into the boards early in the game there was no recovery for the embattled Frimpong this time. In his first appearance of the season young midfielder Euan Henderson was added to a midfield unit showing more legs than anyone had seen for weeks.
In the opening 45 minutes both Soro and Turnbull did enough to suggest a decision club captain Scott Brown could be starting fewer games. Gritty and determined, Soro’s fitness and running prevented Yazici from getting a clean shot on goal six minutes into the second half. Celtic have missed that of late.
A delightful piece of skill from Henderson came as the home team passed the hour point with their lead intact. It might have been their best 60 minutes of the season.
‘Switch on’ yelled Neil Lennon from the sidelines. To get through the final half hour they would need concentration and a bit of luck.
The good luck came when Callum McGregor turned Niasse’s driven shot onto the outside of his own post. The bad saw Turnbull denied a goal after 65 minutes when a neat piece of control ended in a deflected shot bouncing wide of goal.
An old failing proved their downfall in the end. Booked for a clattering challenge on the touchline, Shane Duffy couldn’t get enough on a Yazici free-kick into the penalty area with his defensive header. The ball fell to Weah, the former Celtic loan player hammering another nail into the coffin of his old club with a controlled low volley past Conor Hazard.
For Celtic the final 15 minutes threatened to be a test of character. For once in a season of woe they rose to the challenge.