It had been 131 days since Celtic’s last game when they dismissed poor St Mirren in the Scottish Premiership scornfully on March 7.
But the wait for football to return has lasted indefinitely, with the 5-0 mistreatment of the Saints more like a life ago amid the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.
Thursday night, nearly a thousand miles south of Glasgow, the sight of their football-starved fans waited four months to see Neil Lennon’s men come out of the lock to beat Nice in the opening game of the Veolia Trophy .
A creditable draw with the Ligue 1 high flyers included a blob of VAR controversy, some unreliable defense and a poor finish from the visitors who were otherwise in impressive form.
It also saw a notable first goal ever for the club from £ 3 million in January signing Patryk Klimala – at a time when strike rival Leigh Griffiths was left at home due to fitness issues.
But what ultimately mattered most at night was that football is – finally – back.
So what did the “new normal” look like? Unlike in Scottish stadiums – initially at least when the new Premiership season started on August 1 – supporters were in the game.
But as a result of social distance measures, up to 5,000 French fans were allowed into the hollow 60,000 Groupama stadium.
Outside and within this impressive arena, high security with face masks was mandatory for all attendees outside of the players and the coaching staff.
At the strategic points inside and outside the stadium, very diligent workers were placed carrying giant backpacks with mouthpieces spraying hand sanitizer to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.
A strong Nice side, managed by Patrick Vieira, the legendary ex-France and Arsenal midfielder, awaited the field in the first game of a four-game tournament with Rangers and host Lyon.
As the Champions League last 16 contenders, Lyon is seen as the bigger name. But Vieira’s side finished 5th in the shortened 2019/2020 Ligue 1. Lyon, one point behind, finished seventh.
On the French side are recognizable names such as ex Manchester United and Everton midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin, but he was not in the selection last night.
Beautiful captain Dante, a Champions League winner at Bayern Munich, had to settle for a place on the bench, but played in the second half.
But Celtic’s defense did face the significant threat from Danish striker Kasper Dolberg, who played for the Champions League semi-finals for Ajax in 2018-19 before securing a £ 18m transfer to Nice . Dolberg would prove why he is valued as one of Europe’s emerging strikers.
Given the strength of the opposition, it was no wonder that Lennon started a strong line-up of his own. In front of goalkeeper Scott Bain were Jeremie Frimpong, Christopher Jullien, Kris Ajer and Greg Taylor.
With Captain Scott Brown anchoring the midfielder along with Callum McGregor, James Forrest, Ryan Christie and Mohamed Elyounoussi were behind Odsonne Edouard while Lennon returned to 4-2-31.
After both sides took a knee in support of the worldwide * Black Lives Matter * movement, the match started and the Celtic talisman Edouard wasted little time showing those in his French homeland how dangerous a player is.
The scorer of 28 goals last season, Paris Saint Germain’s club record of £ 9 million thought he had carved within the first four minutes.
After a great tinkling flight from Christie, 22-year-old round keeper Walter Benitez slid the ball into the back of the net.
However, after the ‘goal’ was awarded by the game officials, it was ruled out for offside at a VAR check. But it was controversial because the ball seemed to have come last from Nice’s Jean-Victor Makengo.
Celtic then thanked Scott Bain for a scoreless save from Dolgberg’s header. Lurking Thuram was unable to take advantage of the loose ball.
On the other hand, Benitez had to look smart to stop a 12-meter ride from Christie. But Frimpong did a major recovery kit when Ihsan Sacko got into a dangerous position on the edge of the box.
But when Nice went through six minutes before half-time, Celtic’s defense was questioned.
Pierre Lees-Melou played a ball in Dolberg on the left side of the box and danced in Jullien, then accelerated half-hearted challenges from Forrest and Ajer before passing a simple finish low in the bottom left corner of the net.
Before all Celtic could claim to be emerging in the first half, they were behind. And it took timely interception of Captain Brown to prevent Amine Gouiri’s shot from finding the net.
But Celtic should have been right after the break when Edouard picked up the ball in the middle of the park and put Christie’s in the middle.
He shot at goal, pulled Benitez, but shot past the keeper and next to the post. It was a huge mistake.
After the hour mark, Celtic changed their entire XI with Klimala replacing Edouard.
If a week can be a long time in politics, four months seems like a different age for his fellow striker Griffiths.
After scoring a hat-trick in a 5-0 home game of St Mirren, making Celtic clear 16 points clear at the top, Griffiths confidently stated ‘I was born for Ibrox’ as he pleaded to be released in the upcoming game to Rangers.
However, after Griffiths fell short of the required condition, he was left with the traveling Celtic squad for France and was told to work on a personal fitness and conditioning program at the club’s Lennoxtown base.
Klimala, on the other hand, visited the gym during the lockdown and was desperate to impress last night. He wasted no time doing this pending a campaign in which Celtic chases a historic ten-in-a-row.
If it was a personal disaster for Nice’s sub-goalkeeper Teddy Boulhendi, it was a sign of Klimali’s enormous hunger, he chased the disturbed goalkeeper and robbed the ball in his own box. Left with an empty net, the Pole joyfully rammed the ball home.
He will hope to boost his budding confidence in Celtic’s other games here against Lyon here on Saturday night and against the multi-millionaires of Paris Saint Germain at the Parc des Princes next Tuesday.
But overall, it was a completely satisfying return to Lennon and Celtic football.