The UEFA Champions League: So… How Lucky Were Celtic?
As slightly cumbersome Celtic centre-back Efie Ambrose got another indeterminate body part in the way of another intricate Barcelona passing move, my shredded nerves were joined by an extra sense of unease, as I thought of Chelsea. Celtic’s rearguard action in the Nou Camp on October 23rd was almost universally praised and manager Neil Lennon’s team were deemed heart-breakingly unlucky to lose in the 94th-minute. But even then, I found it impossible to entirely concur. It wasn’t just because I didn’t think Celtic kept the ball well enough on the nine or so occasions they got possession (striker Gary Hooper miscontrolled one pass simply because he momentarily failed to recognise the round thing hurtling towards him, not having seen it for so long).
It was also because I had derided Chelsea as “lucky” and unworthy when they used the self-same “backs-to-the-wall” tactics to win their Champions League semi-final in the same stadium just six months previously. And I derided them as luckier and less worthy when they repeated the “trick” to become the unlikeliest of European club champions in the Munich final 26 days after that. Chelsea received unkinder reviews because they had the talent to play an altogether more expansive game and chose not to; and because they are more generally disliked for any number of other reasons (which would take a whole article to detail). But they overcame Barca having been a goal and a man down after John Terry’s rush of blood to the head (or normal thought process, depending on your view of Chelsea’s captain).
So I couldn’t justify these double standards. They were simply borne of my feelings for Celtic and my equally strong feelings against Chelsea (the latter of which I would happily take a whole article to detail). That said, I believe I would have derided teams about which I was neutral as “lucky” if they had beaten Napoli, Benfica and Barcelona as Chelsea did. And I admit that when pondering the question “Were Celtic lucky?” to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League (annoyingly referred to as “the super-16” by one Sky TV commentator), a lot of images sprang to mind. For there was no doubt that Celtic’s “miracle” (copyright: one Neil Lennon) contained plenty of the stuff. One piece of “luck” might be in my opinion alone; a nagging feeling that Celtic’s late loss in the Nou Camp gave them that extra tiny edge to see Barca off at Celtic Park. A draw in the Nou Camp and Celtic may have been less driven to right a wrong – even a perceived one such as Jordi Alba’s winner in Catalonia.
But leaving that aside, there were some genuine pieces of luck on the night, not least Alexis Sanchez’s first-half header spinning towards outside of the post like a well-flighted off-break (from left to right, for cricket non-aficionados) when a straight delivery might have sent the ball into the net off the post (Benfica were similarly unlucky with one of their many Nou Camp chances). Fraser Forster was magnificent in goal that night. But he was some yards from Sanchez’s header, praying like the rest of us, for a bit of turn. His, and our, prayers were answered. It could also be argued that Celtic’s goal in the Nou Camp was not only a fluky deflection off an unprepared Javier Mascherano but also offside. Celtic’s win in Moscow was strongly aided by Juan Insaurralde’s dismissal for denying Hooper a clear goalscoring opportunity. At the time, Celtic were fast entering plucky territory; two-one down and not really looking like fashioning a chance. And whilst they were not being over-run either, a point looked unlikely, victory unlikelier still.
From then on, though, Spartak’s fragile confidence became more influential. A “what we have we hold” mentality gripped them. And what they had they couldn’t hold. Celtic also got the best of the Moscow weather. From the moment the draw was made, wintry Russian conditions were cited as a potential obstacle to progress, even for players plying their trade in hardly-tropical Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee or Inverness, let alone the Iberian-based sun-worshippers. Celtic played there first, in September rather than November, saving considerable expense on gloves. By the time Benfica got there, it was cold and dank across virtually all of Northern Europe. And Celtic also benefitted from Spartak’s ability to at least be inconsistent, which gave them a 2-1 victory over the Lisbon team, and, it transpired, their only points.
Celtic also had reason to be grateful for Benfica’s reluctance to take full advantage of hooped nerves and push for victory at Parkhead in the group’s opener. Until Victor Wanyama and Scott Brown found their Champions League feet in the second half, Celtic might have crumbled under any Benfica intensity. It never arrived. Lucky that. But Benfica’s major contribution to Celtic’s triumph, having failed to gift Celtic a point in Lisbon through non-league defending at setpieces, was their finishing in the Nou Camp, against Barca’s almost genuine ‘B’ team (Carles Planas, anybody?). When Sky TV commentator Ian Crocker said Benfica were “having the better of it,” he wasn’t wrong. Benfica striker Rodrigo looked every inch a Bolton Wanderers reject when missing an early sitter. And Barca’s defensive reserves looked, remarkably, more inept than their first-team rearguard.
If a central defence is weakened by Javier Mascherano’s absence, Ray Winstone will NOT be asking you, during the half-time interval, to “have a bang on” a 0-0 draw. Yet, 0-0 it was. And Barca could have even nicked it with a late penalty if Benfica keeper Artur’s knee-bruising lunge on Lionel Messi had been punished appropriately. Luck of the night, though, was Celtic’s penalty. Yes, I’ve “seen them given.” Yes, it “would have been a free-kick anywhere else on the pitch.” Probably. But when Georgios Samaras tumbled, I looked at the referee way more in hope than expectation. And if you listened carefully to my cry of “yesss” when he pointed the spot, then, yes, that was a hint of laughter you heard too. And if we are talking about lucky goals, how many teams win TWO games 2-1, thanks to one of the goals coming from an air-shot by an opposition player at just the wrong/right moment? Not only Spartak’s Insaurralde but also Barcelona’s Xavi, or, to give him what I then discovered is his full name, “Xavi Hernandez of all people.”
So. Were Celtic lucky? Well, yes, though not as lucky as knocking Benfica out in 1969…on the TOSS…OF…A…COIN. Were they JUST lucky? Well, no. Had Tony Watt equalised late on in Lisbon, Celtic would have qualified from the group stages with a game left. And you don’t do that just by luck. Benfica were timid at Parkhead, yet Celtic were worth a point. All three Celtic goals in Moscow were excellent – Hooper’s opener a classic breakaway with an international-class finish. Celtic relied on a form of anti-football against Barcelona, but all three of Barca’s goals came in stoppage time. If Messi fails to break Gerd Muller’s goalscoring record for a calendar year, it will be as much down to Celtic holding him to one goal in three hours (plus stoppage time) as any games he might miss through injury. And amid the euphoria of the Celtic Park result, Celtic being without their captain, their top scorer, their winning goalscorer in Moscow and arguably their most skilful player was nearly forgotten.
In Lisbon, Celtic simply weren’t very good and paid the full price – their defeat meaning that finishing “ahead” of Benfica on goals scored would not have been enough, thanks to Uefa’s “head-to-head” rule which prioritises matches between the level teams ahead of goal difference. Just ask Chelsea about that. (Benfica’s Rodrigo Lima said “it would be better for the Champions League if Benfica were to progress.” He might want reminding that Celtic would have finished “ahead” of Benfica on GOALS SCORED, unless Benfica had grabbed five, i.e. taken all their good chances, at the Nou Camp). But on the decisive night, Celtic were good enough. Through the shredded nerves, it was just possible to note that Celtic dominated the second half, having been jolted out of their first-half nerves by Spartak’s equaliser.
Celtic defenders kept bouncing off Spartak’s Nigerian striker Emmanuel Emineke, but he created few chances…none at all after half-time. Celtic ended the night with more efforts on goal and more on target. Most Celtic players found their creative spark – Samaras (and not just in the way he ‘created’ the penalty), Brown, Mikael Lustig, Ambrose (bringing the ball out of his own penalty area like Alan Hansen at his imperious best). And some might even suggest that Aiden McGeady’s late cameo as a Spartak sub was one of his best-ever Celtic displays. It was certainly indicative of Celtic’s display that Hooper should end proceedings with a defensive clearance from the left-back position. Celtic’s achievement also needs contextualising. Since their last Champions League group appearance, Scottish club football has declined alarmingly. The loss of TV revenue caused by the 2009 financial collapse of Setanta UK impacted strongly on wages. And there was, unsurprisingly, a comparable impact on quality.
It may only have been five years since Celtic beat Milan at Celtic Park. But it seemed lifetimes away as Celtic’s European fortunes plummeted. Defeat to Arsenal in the 2009 play-offs was more comprehensive than the 5-1 aggregate suggested; while Celtic subsequently failed to hold their own against even mid-ranking sides. History has been kinder to their 2010 defeat in Braga, who reached that season’s Europa League final, than to embarrassing reverses in Utrecht and, only last year, Sion. And after Celtic were gifted a Europa League group place by Sion’s multiple disregard for a Fifa transfer embargo, there was genuine fear that they would be embarrassed by opponents such as Atletico Madrid and Udinese. The Spaniards beat Celtic twice, at a canter, although history put those defeats in a kinder context as Atleti won the final at a canter too. And, to both the relief and surprise of many, Celtic won one and drew their other three games. The point in Udine in the last match was the strongest hint that Lennon was building a credible, if hardly top-rank European outfit. But it is still a quantum leap from that day to this.
How far can Celtic go? Many fans unenamoured with Celtic and/or the Old Firm have sneered that they will go no further, keen as they are to begrudge Celtic their success (more understandably, I’m sure fans of many clubs find it difficult to appreciate the irony of Celtic being cast in the role of financial underdog, seeing off their ”big money” group opponents). However, that is a more realistic assessment than Celtic having “to fear no-one because they beat Barcelona.” Even Malaga, possibly the next weakest team in the last 16, might have something to say about that. Past Champions League performances are no guide to future success. Just ask Chelsea. It would take much more than luck, grit and inspired displays from Wanyama, Brown, Samaras and Hooper to see off Borussia Dortmund, or Juventus, or even Manchester United’s defence, which is currently filling the hole in kids’ lives left by the demise of the Dandy comic.
That, though, is for February. For now, Celtic fans have some glory in which to bask. While Scottish football has some extra co-efficient points to tot up (which I’m sure Rangers fans will appreciate in the future) and some added credibility, if only by association for now. And if you still think Celtic were just “lucky” to reach the last 16, just remember that they got ten points from six games and would have been desperately unlucky to finish third in a group of four with those ten points. Just ask Chelsea.
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