Tonight in Russia, Celtic did the whole of Scottish Football proud …
They billed this season as the Year of Armageddon. This was the year the Beautiful Game in Scotland was supposed to stagnate. It hasn’t turned out quite the way the doomsayers thought it would. Two of our sides went out of Europe having given good accounts of themselves against decent teams; Motherwell fell in Spain, whilst Hearts gave the men from Anfield one almighty scare.
Celtic’s performances in Europe were very decent thus far. Two wins away from home in the qualifiers seemed to bode well for the group stages, but a 0-0 draw at home to Benfica had the critics out again in full force. This, they said, wasn’t a great side, as though last season’s games against Manchester United meant nothing. To read the press, you’d have thought Celtic should have tied the game up by half time.
The pressure, they said, was on for the match in Moscow. The away record was brought up time and time again. The way they portrayed it, Celtic were not going to Russia to play a football match. This was Mission Impossible. Getting a result there was a task beyond the skills of Jason Bourne. How did these people ever last so long in their jobs, when all they do is talk our football teams down? Had Celtic listened to our media, they might as well have not made the trip.
Those several hundred fans who did were treated to a fantastic match, one which should have every Scottish football supporter beaming this morning. There weren’t ten minutes on the clock before Hooper had put the ball in the net, after a wonderful pass from Lustig. The Englishman has scored a lot of goals in a Celtic shirt, but there can be few as important, or as timely, as this one. In fact, Hooper’s overall performance was so good the legendary England striker Gary Lineker tweeted that it’s about time he was given international consideration. It’s long overdue.
If criticism can be leveled at the striker at all it’s this; his over enthusiasm deprived Celtic of a well deserved second, when he moved a fraction too soon, met a wonderful Samaras cross and placed the ball in the net, only to have it ruled out for offside. The decision seemed marginal, but on the balance it was right. Hooper was a little too eager and made his run just a little bit early. A more experienced player might not have made such a mistake, but this guy, indeed this team, is gaining that experience fast.
Somewhere along the line, they’ve gained something else too. Discipline. Many a Celtic side in the last few years would have lost heart when, first, they lost a goal shortly before half time, seemingly invalidating a first half of excellent work. When the Russians pulled in front, just five minutes after the re-start, the howling of the critics was audible. Most expected Celtic to fold the hand. They didn’t. They kept their composure. They kept their discipline, and they continued to bide their time.
Chances were always going to come. When Hooper raced clear shortly after the hour mark, bearing down on the keeper, the last man tugged his shirt and down he went. What followed was a bizarre few moments when the French referee, who had booked two Celtic players in a dreadful first half, looked set to caution the player for diving, before presumably having his mind changed by another official. He called over the Spartak captain, produced the red card and suddenly Lennon could smell blood.
He made a swift change, bringing on James Forrest for Wanyama, one of the Celtic players who had earlier been booked, for an innocuous challenge. It was to prove an inspired decision, as on 70 minutes the young winger completed a wonderful attacking move, getting on the end of a sublime Hooper lay-off. He hit the ball hard, and his shot was deflected into the net. Celtic were level, and it was truly game on.
Celtic did not go all out to chase the goal. They continued to be disciplined, and patient. They probed. They tested. They came close with an excellent Ledley shot and a couple of headers from set-pieces. The Russian coach changed his own team tactics, bringing on the man mountain Dzyuba, in an effort to lend their attack some physical strength, but he barely touched the ball as the Celtic midfield fought for everything.
With normal time edging to a close, Celtic were awarded a free kick. The ball ended up out wide left, and Emilio Izaguirre fired the ball across the penalty area, and Giorgios Samaras rose above the defence and headed it cleanly into the net.
The small group of Celtic fans who had made the trip were ecstatic.
Celtic needed this tonight, to bury the hoodoo of all those away matches without a win. But as much as that, Scottish football needed this too.
It seems we’re not as close to The End as the critics have been saying ….
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