Celtic’s Champions League Qualifying Party
On Wednesday night I was introduced, three times in four minutes, to the concept of “ear-splitting.” And what I thought was a metaphor for extremely high volume seemed very nearly real. When Celtic’s Moussa Dembele netted the stoppage-time penalty which advanced the Scottish champions to the final Champions League qualifying round, 52,000 people went various forms of nuts, loudly, all at once. They did so two minutes earlier, when Dembele tripped over FC Astana defender Igor Shitov seventeen yards from goal to win that penalty. And did so again, two minutes later, when the game finished. Celtic Park on a “great European night.” For this very part-time London-based Celtic fan, it WAS a great night. It was, eeek, NINETEEN years since my last Celtic home game and the first time I’d seen the (nearly) all-seater Parkhead. And…wow…
“History” is a hot Glaswegian football topic, given the current Rangers’ claim to 144 years of it. But Celtic certainly know theirs, as Celtic Park and its environs is the ultimate tribute to it. There are impressive statues of Billy McNeill lifting the European Cup, legendary boss Jock Stein and club founder Brother Walfrid. While adorning the outside of the ground are huge stunning sky-high pictures of the legends of Celtic’s history, under the legend “Paradise. Where Legends Are Made.” Legendary stuff. The place may resemble a tourist attraction with fans taking photos everywhere (guilty as charged). But its designers got absolutely everything right. The illuminated pathway to the ground’s frontage couldn’t but inspire, even as Glasgow’s heavens opened. For the Celtic-minded, its spine-tingling.
I’d seen Celtic in England and Ireland (and youth teams in Dartford and Wycombe) since last going to “Paradise” in April 1997, having been a ten-game-a-season man in my youth as a Celtic “London no.1” supporters’ club member. But I was a debutant at the modern 60,832-seater amphitheatre. So it was nice of ex-Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers’ team to put on a show to welcome me back. In truth, the football itself wasn’t much of a show. Dramatic ends to each half…as if scripted at full-time. But that didn’t matter. Celtic Park was stunning, inside and out, with the fans very much of a show, regardless of the “main” spectacle’s quality, in a venue worthy of any Champions League tie.
For “lesser” European “winter” league champions, these weeks are an oddity. The revamped/bloated (delete “revamped” as applicable) Champions League format strongly favours teams from summer leagues. Last November, BATE Borisov lost 3-0 at Barcelona. Last Tuesday, they lost 3-0 at… Dundalk. Other League of Ireland sides have produced eye-catching results. But St Patrick’s Athletic would not have drawn 1-1 IN WARSAW in July 2014 against Legia had both sides been remotely equally prepared; Legia’s 5-0 win in Inchicore a week later better reflecting the teams’ comparative standings. And the early start to European club competition left Celtic combining pre-season friendlies with Champions League games, while Aberdeen and Hearts were in Europa League action during Euro 2016.
So Celtic had to start playing in June to be at all prepared for mid-July’s Champions League second qualifying round, while fitting in friendlies against stronger if equally under-prepared opposition. Their wretched first-leg defeat to Gibraltarian champions Lincoln Red Imps suggested even that didn’t work. The balance was particularly tricky this July between Champions League ties with potentially lucrative long-term value and instantly lucrative “International Champions Cup” games with Leicester, Barcelona and Internazionale…the latter, in…er…Limerick, after the Scottish Premiership’s start. However, if all this affected the team, it didn’t affect supporters. Celtic’s 55,632 crowd against Lincoln Red Imps was partly because it was Rodgers’ competitive home debut. The 52,952 who showed up on Wednesday knew what was at stake.
52,900 of them were Celtic fans. The knot of Astana fans taking group selfies in front of Celtic Park’s hugely-impressive entrance were almost their entire support. A wet Wednesday night in Glasgow, 4,000 miles from their Kazakhstan home, had limited appeal. But not many more Celtic fans went to Kazakhstan seven days earlier. So VERY fair play to all who travelled. Initially, Astana did not make the journey worthwhile. With the first leg ending 1-1, Astana needed a goal. However, they tiptoed through the first half as if scoring was a bad idea. They had two strikers but the game plan ignored them completely. Astana even wasted time at first-half corners, which split fans between the predictable “booooo” and “it’s your own time you’re wasting” in derisive snort form from those aware that 0-0 would put Celtic through on away goals.
Celtic dominated first-half possession but…er…that was it. Rodgers’ team selection suggested that ball-winning was exclusively Scott Brown’s domain, never wise for a team hoping to finish with eleven men on the pitch, especially while Brown struggles for form after last season’s injury lay-off. Calum McGregor, James Forrest and Patrick “Paddy” Roberts are exciting talents but not tacklers. And after 22 minutes of twisting and turning to minimal effect, Roberts twisted and turned his hamstring once too often and his match was over.
It was a dull first half, impossible to call “tactically intriguing” without laughing. But the crowd were buoyed by the game’s importance and the incessant noise from Celtic Park’s new “safe-standing” area. The noisemakers, the “Green Brigade” (GB) are not everybody’s cup of tea. Loud, unashamedly-political lefties, they are renowned for matchday banners which are controversial, imaginative and superbly-made in equal measure. Celtic considered banning the GB three years ago. But even the club realised that they were often the only matchday atmosphere. So it was no surprise that Block 111, the GB’s matchday home, became the ground’s safe-standing area. And while Wednesday was sadly banner-free, the GB…NEVER…SHUT…UP. The whole crowd were way livelier than the first half. But the GB needed to mask occasional renditions of “f***’s sake, Celtic, get intae ‘em.” And they delivered.
On the pitch, the first meaningful shot was Brown’s fizzing 20-yard volley just over after a corner was drilled towards him on 20 minutes. And top scorer Leigh Griffiths shot wide moments later. Astana won their corners while Celtic were effectively a man short as Roberts tried vainly to overcome his injury. But Celtic were untroubled defensively, despite missing four defenders, three injured and one accident-prone. Nigerian defender Efe Ambrose has been the dictionary definition of “accident-prone” during an often admirable Celtic career. And never more so than this summer. Griffiths nearly benefitted from some rare Efe-esque Astana defending just before half-time. And in first-half stoppage time, Abzel Betsebekov kicked Celtic left-back Kieran Tierney up the arse just inside the penalty box and Griffiths netted with the half’s final kick.
Two Astana players saw yellow for protesting but there seemed little controversy about the award, although the foul wasn’t as deliberate nor as “tough” as some earlier tackles. That it took 20 minutes for Shitov to be the first booking was pure testament to referee Istvan Kovac’s leniency. Half-time did little to calm the sides’ contrasting emotions. Stefan Johansen, Roberts’ replacement, and Brown both sent Griffiths clear just after half-time. But his shots found the side-netting and Shitov’s outstretched leg. Griffiths hobbled away from the latter incident, which may have had subsequent implications. Astana keeper Nenad Eric also denied Tierney as Celtic kept up pressure which was only interrupted when a two-yards offside Roger Canas bundled home a right-wing cross, with Celtic keeper Craig Gordon doing a star jump in the six-yard box for no discernible reason.
So Cote D’Ivoire international centre-back Kolo Toure’s introduction looked more vital for the game time it gave Celtic’s highest-profile close-season signing than for any effect on the game itself. Yet within two minutes, even the GB were momentarily silenced. Gordon raced out to head an overhit through-ball to safety but found Agim Ibraimi instead. Ibraimi shook off Brown (on this night, the easy bit) before arrowing a 40-yarder inches under the crossbar. A Gordon howler but a sensational finish. Eric soon denied Tierney again and it looked increasingly like “his night.” “He’s f***ing Superman at these crosses” noted one frustrated Celt as Eric punched another eminently catchable cross clear of danger. For the first and only few minutes of the night, Astana looked like they actually wanted to score, Junior Kabananga sweeping a shot inches wide after the game’s most flowing move. Meanwhile, Dembele’s introduction gave Celtic another target to miss with their mounting tally of hopeful hoofs. And the GB were again having to mask the crowd’s increasingly-vocal frustrations.
Yet a dramatic late Celtic win was on. Dembele was a proper threat. Astana thought extra-time their best bet, a risky strategy given Shitov’s dalliance with a second booking when he upended Griffiths late on. And, as per any Hollywood film script, Dembele hurtled into the box right on 90 minutes, played a terrific one-two with Griffiths before tumbling over Shitov’s leg, a boot width inside the area. Astana were furious. Any team in their situation would be. But while Dembele flew through the air with the greatest of ease, he WAS fouled. Honest. Amid the din three minutes’ stoppage time was announced. And it was that and more before Astana’s protests died down.
It wasn’t obvious that Dmitri Shomko had seen red alongside the twice-booked Shitov. But Dembele was holding the ball. Griffiths netted the first-half penalty and had netted countless more throughout his professional career. Yet Dembele, a teenager until last month, making his competitive home debut, was tasked with retaining the credibility of Celtic’s season…and the potential for multi-millions in Champions League prize money. And he was taking a…TWO…PACE…RUN-UP. Legendary Scottish commentator Archie MacPherson might have phrased it differently. But my commentary on the penalty was, approximately: “Take a proper run-up…take a proper ****ing run-up!!! For ****’s sake….yyyaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyy!!!”
Dembele drilled his kick unstoppably into the very corner of the corner of the net, just as we knew he would. Bedlam ensued. But as one Celtic fan said, sometime later, after the noise finally abated: “Those ******* short run-ups freak me oot.” Being drawn against Dundalk in the final qualifying round was the ideal for Celtic fans who knew their history; that Dundalk were probably the least-difficult opposition Celtic could face had nothing to do with it…no…YOU shut up.
And actual opponents, Israeli champions Hapoel Be-er-Sheva, are probably more beatable than other potential opponents such as Dinamo Zagreb or Ludogorets, despite the Israelis knocking Olympiakos out this week. Yet Hapoel probably consider Celtic probably more beatable than other potential opponents. Probably correctly. With the first leg at Celtic Park, though, Wednesday’s drama will not be repeated unless Celtic win the tie and up their game considerably from their last group-stage appearance…and from much of the Astana game. Which makes last Wednesday so worth savouring. Football as drama at its best, in one of the best theatres around.
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