After the longest five minutes of injury time in Scottish football history, the final whistle blew to a chorus of relief and euphoria at Celtic Park and among the green-and-white hordes glued to TVs worldwide. It was over at Parkhead; it was over in Barcelona, and Celtic were through to the knockout stages of the Champions League– at last.
It’s only four years since Celtic were last here, under Gordon Strachan, but it seems like a lifetime ago. There’s been so much water under the bridge since then. The barren end to Strachan’s otherwise successful reign.The disastrous Tony Mowbray era. Neil Lennon starting from scratch and building a brand new team on a shoestring; a sometimes painful process, most notably illustrated by the infamous Scottish Cup defeat to Ross County. Dismal European displays against Utrecht and Sion. The appalling treatment of Lennon, both at the hands of the lunatic fringe and a shamefully irresponsible Scottish press. Handing the league title to Rangers in Lennon’s first full season in charge. Every moment of that pain was exorcised in the celebrations that ensued at full-time against Spartak Moscow.
The magnitude of Celtic’s achievement in qualifying cannot be overstated. Money matters in football these days and Scottish football exists on a budget that would be considered loose change in many leagues across the continent. Celtic may be the wealthiest in their own land but every other team in their Champions League group can spend on one or two players what the Hoops spend on a whole squad. Case in point – the money last night’s opponents Spartak Moscow paid to prise Aiden McGeady away from Parkhead effectively funded two years’ transfer activity, as well as reducing the club’s debt. Chelsea and Manchester City, with squads assembled at a cost of hundreds of millions, are out. Celtic, whose entire squad probably cost around £15m, are through. The fact that the Celts have punched so far above their financial weight in this tournament is testament to many things, including the club’s incredible scouting network and, most of all, the manager’s ability to get the most of his players and create an unbelievable team spirit.
Qualification has been a team effort. The side has won, lost and drawn together as a passionately unified force. Every player stood out in the wins over Barcelona and Spartak. However, some names are worthy of individual mention. Lennon himself, for a start. No longer is he loved by fans simply for being the archetypal ‘Celtic man’. Now he’s also respected as a tactically shrewd coach and inspirational leader.
Then there’s Samaras – the great enigma. One of the first items on Lennon’s to do list when he took over was to get rid of the Greek under-achiever, a man he clearly perceived as a slacker and a bottler. Samaras didn’t want to go, preferring to stay and prove himself to manager and fans alike, and how he has done that. Once a laughing stock or a source of frustration, he has become the pivot of Celtic’s European campaign and it was apt that he took the captain’s armband when Scott Brown was substituted. He has led the line with courage and creativity and, though he lost possession a few times in the first half against Spartak, he was simply imperious after the break. It speaks volumes of his character, and of Lennon’s ability to adapt, that he has salvaged his Celtic career.
Fraser Forster didn’t have his busiest night of the tournament against Spartak. For all that the Russians enjoyed a lot of possession, they didn’t test the England squad man too much. His contribution throughout the group stages, though, has been priceless. Without him, the points against Barca and even the point in the opening clash with Benfica would surely have slipped away. Newcastle boss Alan Pardew must be asking himself what the hell he was thinking letting the big man go for such a modest fee.
Scott Brown has played through the pain barrier to captain the team to European glory, and he was vital against Spartak, harrying, intercepting and linking with the front men until cramp caused by a lack of games caught up with him. Charlie Mulgrew, like Samaras, has also completed an incredible reincarnation as a Celtic player and has imposed himself on the Champions League through sheer force of will, not to mention a lethal left foot. It would be easy to go on, but we’d be here all day. Suffice to say that everyone who played a part in the group stages contributed to a feat that few, if any, thought possible.
Celtic needed a bit of luck to finally book their place in the last 16, with Kris Commons blasting home a soft penalty in the dying minutes, but they hadn’t had much luck in the tournament previously and maybe this was the football gods deciding that they deserved a rub of the green. It’s irrelevant now, and Celtic can look forward to rubbing shoulders with the big boys in the New Year.
Where can they go from here? Pundits will say that the last 16 is realistically the limit of their aspiration but those would be the same pundits who said they had no chance of getting out of the group. ITV tweeted “bye bye Celtic,” on their official football feed when the group draw was made. Lee Dixon, after speculating that every English team would get through their group, suggested that the Celts would simply be able to enjoy playing against better teams. What do they have to say now? What can anybody say? The truth is that nobody has a clue where Celtic’s campaign will go from here. They’re still rank outsiders, but that’s been the case all along. Neil Lennon’s men are on an amazing adventure and now the fans can spend the winter wondering where it will lead.