Celtic added another key moment to their history with victory over Spartak Moscow, putting them through to the knockout stages along with group leaders Barcelona. The Daily Shift’s Kevin Bolger has more…
Incredible. Electric. Magnificent.
This was the atmosphere at Park Head last night as Celtic faced off against Spartak Moscow in the biggest game in the club’s recent history. “You’ll never walk alone” echoed across Glasgow as Celtic fans began to believe – tonight was their night. Rarely when watching a game of soccer do the hairs stand on the back of your neck, but there wasn’t a spine un-chilled when the UEFA Champions League theme song began to play, welcoming the teams to the pitch.
The crowd raised the roof and the decibel levels to a peak few followers would claim to be capable of replicating. Now it was just a question of whether or not the team could hold their nerve and live up to the expectation. To advance, they needed to better Benfica’s result at the Nou Camp. But with Barcelona fielding an understrength team with nothing to play for, the bhoys could not afford to be complacent. Especially not against a Moscow side determined to save face in an awful Champions League campaign.
In truth this hasn’t been Moscow’s best season. They currently lie in exile in 8th place of Russia’s top flight of football, with 12 goals conceded in the last 3 games and the recent sacking of their manager (replaced by Karpin). And to compound this, Spartak’s and former Celtic golden boy Aidan McGeady has been out with a knee injury. This was never going to stop him from making his return to Park Head however, as he eventually made a sub appearance towards the end of the game.
Celtic manager Neil Lennon remained level headed right up to the start of the game, stating that while he knows Moscow have nothing to play for they are a team with “loads of pride”. But Celtic weren’t about to let something as silly as the broken ego of Spartak Moscow get between them and their dreams. This was their night, their moment, their destiny. And nothing or nobody was going to prevent them from gaining their just rewards.
Indeed Celtic’s fortunes in the Champions League have been vastly better than that of Moscow’s, having pulled off arguably the greatest feat in the clubs history since the Lisbon Lions won the competition, beating Lionel Messi’s Barcelona 2-1 in front of the home crowd, and reducing an emotional Rod Stewart to tears. And only for an Iniesta goal in the closing stages of the reverse fixture at in Spain, Celtic would be through as group leaders.
The referee blew the whistle for the start of the game and again the crowd exploded with noise. And it wasn’t long until the fans had something tangible to cheer about. After a inexcusable defensive error by Insaurralde, Celtic poacher Gary Hooper pounced to strike home Celtic’s first of the game. The belief began to grow that the Champions League dream was to be. It was all Celtic, but Moscow had a menace in striker Eminike.
Eminike scored 2 against Celtic in their 3-2 victory in Moscow earlier in the campaign, and while Celtic were dominating in all the key areas of the pitch, Eminike, working as a lone striker, was proving to be a handful. There was a feeling every time that he was on the ball that he was going to be the one to spoil the bhoy’s party. While it wasn’t him directly, he was involved in the build up to Spartak’s equaliser. Using his electric pace on the counter attack, he found team-mate Ari, who lobbed Forster to stun Celtic and put their Champions League hope in jeopardy.
Credit where it is due to the fans. The shock of the goal, which put Celtic’s chances hanging in the balance only served as a speed bump in their vocals, as within a minute they were back behind their team. They would need all the help they could get. With 45 minutes gone, they were level at 1-1, with the score in Spain tied at 0-0. As it stood, the result would not be good enough. They would need some luck.
One of the key areas around Celtic’s success this season has been their set pieces, which have caused defensive nightmares for opposition. But last night, despite having 4 corners and a number of frees in the first half, Celtic failed to provide any quality delivery. Uncharacteristically disappointing delivery from the dead ball situation in one of the most important games in the club’s history was taking its toll on the supporters nerves. But as the 2nd half progressed, Celtic began to challenge more from the corner and Ambrose nearly restored their lead with a header in to the side netting.
Next up it was Mulgrew, who tested Pesyakov, forcing a miraculous save as he stretched himself to the limit to deny the Celtic man. With Samaras having struck the upright with a vicious volley minutes earlier and Benfica continuing to hold out at the Nou Camp, you would be forgiven for becoming pessimistic about the outcome of the game. But never count the hoops out. With 10 minutes to go, Celtic got the break they desperately needed.
Samaras went down in the box with the lightest of touches from the Moscow defender and referee Felix Bresch pointed to the spot. Surely this was to be it. Surely this was the end of the tale. It was up to Chris Commons to secure the fairytale finish for the Hoops as the crowd collectively held their breath. Such was the tension of the moment that manager Lennon and some of his backroom staff turned away from the scene and buried their heads in to the dugouts, unable to watch.
If they had watched, you wonder would they have had a heart attack as Commons struck the ball with cool confidence down the middle, but off the crossbar, just low enough for it to rebound comfortably in the back of the net.
Ecstasy ensued. It was the moment they had been waiting for. The moment that had been cast in to doubt ever since Ari’s 1st half equaliser. Now all that was left was to hold out for the victory and for Barcelona to hold out against Benfica. 5 minutes extra time was to be played in both games. But no goals were to be scored and Celtic were to progress to the knockout stages of the Champions league, finishing runners up to Barcelona and achieving a club record for group stage points, with 10 in total.
The only dampener on the night was when Spartak’s midfielder Kallstrom was sent off for a late, high tackle on goal scorer Chris Commons, who was eventually stretchered off. Aidan McGeady made his return to Celtic park, coming on as a sub, presumably to introduce some pace and creativity to the Moscow attack, but you got the feeling the lifetime Celtic fan was not overly enthused about becoming the reason behind Celtic losing out on a place in the knock out rounds. The Irish international got a round of applause as he came on as a sub for Moscow, perhaps exhibiting to the Irishman that he is always welcome back.
And so ended a monumental night in the history of Celtic FC, reaching the knock out stages of the champions league on record points, with a Barcelona scalp already to their name. Will they be able to keep it up in the knock out stages? Only time will tell. Either way, the Celtic players have done their club and fans proud.
Long may the Celtic symphony play on.