Celtic reach knock-out phase of Champions League
Every year in the world of football there is a feel good story that re-instills your romance for the game. The European campaign story from Celtic certainly has billed to be another in a long line of nostalgic football stories. After qualifying for the Champions League proper through the qualifying rounds early in September, none would have given the Scottish giants a penny’s worth to get through to the knock-out phase. In a group containing Barcelona, Portuguese powerhouse Benfica and lavish spenders in the form Russian side Spartak Moscow, the Hoops were supposed to be the whipping boys of the group. On paper, they just didn’t have the quality to rub shoulders with the competition.
Three months on and Neil Lennon and his men have just done what nobody would have been able to muster at the beginning of the Champions League this season. For the first time since 2006, Celtic have qualified for the next phase of the Champions League and deservedly so. The men from Parkhead wowed the footballing world with victory over mighty Barcelona and the victory against Spartak Moscow last night sealed a memorable day in Celtic history.
The 2-1 triumph came courtesy another impressive performance from the whole team. Defending began from the front while attacks were built up right from the back. Goals from Gary Hooper and Kris Commons’s late penalty sealed the deal for the Hoops. The draw at Camp Nou meant that they qualified at the expense of Benfica.
The match started off as a scrappy affair with both sides hoofing the ball rather than giving signs of composed possession. The home side looked tentative in the early exchanges and it was the visitors who called the early shots. An early Kallstrom effort whizzed past the upright while Emenike looking to provide some early running. However Gary Hooper prodded the Scottish team in front with their first chance of the game on 21 minutes.
The goal was at as good as it got for the Bhoys in the first half, which was filled with Spartak’s relentless pressure but wastefulness in the final third. Ari, Emineke and the loanee from Schalke Jurado kept probing and asking questions of the Celtic defense. On 39 minutes, their perseverance was rewarded as Brown’s wayward pass was intercepted, with Emineke setting up Ari to dink it over the Forster for the equalizer.
The second half gave us the first sightings of Georgios Samaras as he started off on the front foot after the break. A delightful cross from Mikael Lustig after slipping into some space on the right side was met by the Greek forward on 51 minutes only to see his volleyed effort crash off the post and out.
The commitment from the Celtic boys were evident as the home side strode forward looking for the ever-elusive second goal. With Spartak content to play on the counter the crowd got soon in to the game and on 79 minutes were rewarded. Charlie Mulgrew forced Pesyakov into a fine save and a corner is all that Celtic could conjure up.
Then a few minutes later, Samaras was tripped and his hard work in the half was rewarded with a penalty. Kris Commons was given the responsibility of at the spot. Commons fired it down the middle to catch the underside of the bar but good enough to bounce into the net. The Scottish winger had the 59,000 at Celtic palpitating when the ball hit the bar but as the ball crossed the line the sheer elation of the Celtic faithful was evident as they went up in raptures.
That could easily have been the last action of the match but a reckless challenge from Kallstrom put paid to that. A reckless challenge from the Swede brought out the red card from the referee’s pocket and saw Commons stretchered off. With all substitutes used, both sides ended the game with 10 men on the pitch.
With the final whistle and results of a goalless draw filtering in from the Camp Nou, this went down as a memorable night in the Scottish club’s history. Even if Celtic don’t win another match in the competition, this year will go down as one of the most prized ones in their recent history.
While any group winner will love their stakes if drawn against them, Celtic will surely have the backing of a huge number of neutrals who will want their dream run to continue and eagerly anticipating what more they have in store for us when their European campaign resumes post Christmas.