Celtic manager Neil Lennon declared himself “the proudest man in Europe” after his sides thrilling 3-2 victory in Moscow; unbelievably the club’s first ever away win in the Champions League proper. There has been a prevailing sense in the sporting media, even within Scotland, that just being in the group stages is an achievement and that a few points picked up here and there would be a creditable outcome. Very few have suggested that Celtic actually have a chance of getting through, as illustrated by the positive press response to a 0-0 home draw with Benfica that disappointed many fans.
Lennon, however, has oozed cautious confidence from the outset. While choosing his words carefully and being naturally cagey about setting finite targets, he has consistently refused to accept that Celtic are there to make up the numbers. Maybe a few others will share that view today.
The opening minutes of the match would have done little to alter the perceptions of the naysayers, with Spartak dominating possession and forcing a few early corners. Celtic looked nervous, and it made for uncomfortable viewing. That all changed when talismanic striker Gary Hooper scored from the improving Mikael Lustig’s delivery. Off the back of away wins in Helsinki and Helsinborgs, the belief was back.
Spartak continued to apply pressure but it wasn’t until the 34th minute that Celtic keeper Fraser Forster had a serious save to make, from Nicolas Pareja’s free kick. Then, at the worst time possible, Celtic pressed the self-destruct button that has blighted their away European games for years, falling prey to a long-ball from Kim Kallstrom before Ari set up Emenike to equalise on the stroke of half time. Minutes into the second half, things went from bad to worse. Ari was again involved, with Forster unable to hold his shot, and Emenike followed up to give the Russians the lead. At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking ‘here we go again,’ but this Celtic team has newfound steel. Aided by the sending off of Insaurralde, which was stonewall despite the referee’s apparent indecision, they got back into the game.
Few Celtic fans are daft enough to believe this result means they have one foot in the knockout stages, but what he has done is opened the group right up
Celtic kept old bhoy Aiden McGeady quiet, looked dangerous on the break and played like, well … a European team. Samaras, so important to Celtic’s strategy in Europe was a vital out-ball, skipper Scott Brown is returning to his imposing best after injury, and Hooper looked more impressive than ever, even prompting a certain Mr Lineker to tweet that England should take a serious look at him. It was Samaras and Hooper who combined to release James Forrest and his shot eventually found its way into the net via the Spartak goalie and then Kombarov. Joe Ledley came close before Samaras’ injury-time header from a divine Izaguirre cross gave the Hoops the kind of win that has persistently eluded previous Celtic sides.
It was also a personal triumph for Neil Lennon. Shamefully harassed off the pitch, criticised as a manager and as a person and, because of the goings-on at Ibrox last season, not given due credit for winning the SPL, this was his finest hour. By winning away from home in the Champions’ league - against a good side, too - he has achieved what Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan could not and nobody can take that away from him. “I think people underestimate Celtic,” he said after the match. “I don’t think we get the respect we deserve, but maybe that performance will change a few attitudes.”
Few Celtic fans are daft enough to believe this result means they have one foot in the knockout stages, but what he has done is opened the group right up. The table will probably look very different after the impending double-header with Barcelona but Celtic have given themselves a fighting chance. That, along with removing the ‘away’ monkey from the team’s collective back, is a pretty good night’s work. We’re on the road again.
If you liked this, check these out
Click here for more articles about Football in Sabotage Times
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook