Space inside the box when you have the ball at your feet is at premium and whatever you have, closes quickly. The ancient part of our brains kicks in at this point. We become alert to the dangers of the shrinking space.
This reaction is biologically evidenced. The associated rush of adrenaline flushes the muscles with energy but it also obscures peripheral vision. You will know this yourself if you’ve been in possession of a football for as much as a second with defenders closing a loop around you. This is why, from the stands, we can often see a pass, but the player in possession fires off a shot that is easily blocked.
Watch Odsonne Edouard before he passes to Ryan Christie for the equaliser. Running towards goal with the ball, he has to fight against all of these biological factors to suppress the urge to panic into a premature shot.
His presence in the box induces the same adrenaline rush in the Lazio defenders’ brains and limbs: they focus on Odsonne, but the Celtic striker is winning the fight against nature. He maintains enough peripheral vision to spot the slenderest gap at 90 degrees to his right. Ryan Christie is in space and while all others panic, Odsonne pings a pass into Ryan’s path.
You can give players all the benefits sports science allows, train them until they are built like supermen, but the game is played in the mind. That ability to defy the natural instinct and control your body is where greatness lives.
I was troubled at halftime. Celtic did not deserve to be behind but Lazio scored an excellent goal and were clearly a very good team, while Cluj were ahead in Rennes, the result we did not want. The opening 15 minutes of the second half were controlled by the visitors, with Celtic unable to hold possession.
We needed energy from somewhere and Ryan Christie stepped forward. He covers 20 yards with great speed and regularity. His run to the corner around the hour, which created our first chance of the second half, looked like he was propelled forward in a pinball machine. His sprint forward, drop back, then repeat action, change the flow of the game.
It is not just Celtic who seldom score from corner kicks, such goals are the Hen’s Teeth of the modern game. Defenders mark the main threats, while others attack the space most likely to produce a goal. With the inevitable numerical defensive overload and set plays video analysed to within an inch of indecency, corners are the football equivalent of a Brexit deadlock.
But still, when Scott Brown’s shot from outside the box was deflected wide with two minutes remaining, we could dream. Christopher Jullien is as commanding in the air as any Celtic player since Bobo Balde. His sheer upper body bulk make a challenge from lesser mortals futile. His leap and glancing header inside the far post were like a great cruise liner gracefully launching down the slip. We were going to win this, or so we thought.
Fraser Forster had already made an incredible block with the score at 1-1, but in the final minute of added time, his leap to stop the unstoppable volley from Cataldi was the best save I have ever seen.
Crowds react to great save with cheers, or applause on lesser occasions. This save was met with an audible gasp. Shock from the ancient part of our brains was articulated an instant before the subsequent joy, not to mention respect. We were not to be denied.
When Hatem Elhamed went down injured inside the last 10 minutes, Moritz Bauer, a straight replacement at right back, was told to get stripped, but Neil Lennon quickly changed his mind. Instead, there was an Israeli shuffle, with Nir Bitton replacing Elhamed. Celtic went to a back three and two minutes later, Neil replaced Boli Bolingoli with Jonny Hayes. Coming so late in the game, Lazio had no time to react; Celtic were setup to control the middle of the park.
Goodness. In the dying minutes of a game against the top seed with the score at 1-1, we change tactical formation, going three at the back against two strikers. You have to hand it to Neil Lennon. Without this change, Scott Brown is nowhere near the Lazio box to be able to latch onto a loose ball and shoot to secure the corner that produced the winning goal.
It was an absolute masterstroke. Well done, boss.
For most of us, our days are full of small joys and trials. Spontaneous, shared, exhilaration is in rare supply. But, here we are.