Thursday, 14 February 2013

5 highlights of Champions League

DESPITE being all but knocked-out of the Champions League on Tuesday, there have been numerous high points in our campaign.

When discussing Celtic in the Champions League, I always find myself coming back to ITV’s tweet, where they disrespectfully wrote off any chance of Celtic qualifying from their group.

We did qualify, with a record for a Scottish team 10 points. Throughout the course of the competition, we managed to get a very large monkey off our backs, restore a bit of pride to Scottish football after months of chaos ruining the reputation of our game, and we even managed to beat one of the best teams to ever grace the sport. Not bad, eh?

After Tuesday’s first leg 3-0 defeat to Juventus, I feel like I need a pick-me-up. So I have decided to look back on my five Champions League highlights from this year’s campaign. All Celtic related, of course. Enjoy this piece of nostalgia.

NUMBER 5: Samaras’ goal in the Camp Nou. 

After securing our first ever away win in the Champions League group stages (I will come back to this in more detail later), we traveled to Spain to face the best team in the world.

Confidence was high after the Spartak win and there was a real sense of optimism around Celtic. The dream turned to reality when an 18th minute header from Giorgios Samaras found the back of the net. It was one of the moments you will always remember and I’m sure this goal sparked jubilant celebrations all-round the country, and indeed, the world.

This goal gave Celtic something to defend, something to cling on to. It took a genius bit of attacking play to break down the Celtic defence, when after some slick passing, Iniesta scored on the stroke of half-time. Celtic defended brilliantly in the second half, but it wouldn't be enough to snatch a famous draw. In the 94 minute, Jordi Alba snuck round the back post unnoticed and tapped in the winner.

Despite the defeat, Samaras’ goal and some heroic defending gave Celtic fans real belief that we could compete at this level once again.  It’s not every season you get to say your team had the lead away to Barcelona. Samaras would go on to be our top scorer with three goals.

NUMBER 4: Win at home to Spartak 

In our final game of the group stages, we welcomed Spartak Moskva to Celtic Park. In order to gain qualification to the round of 16, Celtic had to better Benfica’s result, they were away to Barcelona.

Going in to the game I thought all we had to do was win and that should be enough to qualify, as I expected Barcelona to beat Benfica. Gary Hooper’s 21st minute strike settled a lot of nerves around Celtic Park, despite it still being goalless in the Camp Nou.

Those nerves swiftly returned after Ari scored with a clever chip over the onrushing Fraser Forster six minutes before the break. As thing stood, Celtic would not be qualifying as Benfica were still holding the group leaders to a 0-0 draw.

As we entered the final 10 minutes, there was now a feeling that Celtic would have to score in order to progress, as the Benfica game look destined to finish goalless. Then with nine minutes to go, a great touch on his chest from Samaras, allowed him to step past the Spartak defender Marek Suchy, who then fouled the Greek to give Celtic a penalty.  This was smashed down the middle from Kris Commons to send Celtic fans into hysterics. Spartak’s Kallstrom was then sent off to make Celtic’s task a bit more straight forward. We qualified and could look forward to playing the last 16 for the first time in five years.

NUMBER 3: Spartak 2 Celtic 3

At last, finally, Celtic had won away from home in the Champions League!

19 times Celtic had traveled away from home in this competition and never won. Quite fitting that the timing of the winning goal was in injury time, the same way in which we had lost so many of our previous outings.

The game had started well with Gary Hooper giving us the lead in the 12 minute, converting Lustig’s cross with a brilliant touch to find the bottom corner. Then two goals either side of half-time from Emenike put Spartak in front.

Celtic responded well to going behind and the 63rd-minute dismissal of Juan Insaurralde, gave Celtic’s travelling support some belief. After a clever move from Celtic, Gary Hooper played the ball into the path of James Forrest, who seen his shot saved but then rebounded in by Dmitri Kombarov to restore parity. minute, a cross from Emilio Izaguirre was expertly headed into the far corner by Samaras to give Celtic a famous win.

Neil Lennon was full of praise at full-time: “I'm probably the proudest man in Europe tonight. I cannot speak highly enough of the players. They were magnificent at a very tough venue against an excellent side.”

NUMBER 2 Display and atmosphere against Barcelona

I considered lumping this in with the actual result of beating Barcelona, but the atmosphere was so good I think it deserves a place on its own.

The day after Celtic celebrated their 125 anniversary, we welcomed the mighty Barcelona to Celtic Park. As far as birthday guests go, it doesn't get much bigger. It’s like inviting Rihanna to be a stripper at your 21, or getting Craig Whyte to come along to do stand-up, mass excitement.

Full credit must be given to the Green Brigade for the effort they went to, to put together such a breath-taking display. With Barcelona coming to town there was excitement in the air anyway, this was Celtic’s biggest game of the season. The best team in the world were coming to Glasgow. The excitement was only added to by the full-stadium display which would have been broadcasted around the world. The atmosphere throughout the game will be something I never forget. The feeling of jubilation taking a two-goal lead at home to the Catalan giants was brilliant. The night was always going to be special, the display, atmosphere and result meant the game will live long in ever Celtic fan’s memory.

NUMBER 1: Beating Barcelona

I’m sure this is the choice that most Celtic fans would've picked as their single highlight of the Champions League this year.

I mentioned the atmosphere earlier, so I won’t go into too much detail about that again. We went into the game as underdogs. This was before the team picked by Lennon would include the omissions of our leading scorer, Gary Hooper, club captain Scott Brown, James Forrest and Emilio Izagurrie.

Even with a weakened team, we were ruthless and showed brilliant tenacity. Celtic, against all odds, took the lead in the 21st minute when Victor Wanyama powered over Marc Bartra to send a towering header past Victor Valdes in the Barcelona goal. After being part of the pre-match full stadium display, the Celtic fans raised the noise which would have intimidated even the most experienced players.

From that point on, it was attack after attack from the Catalan giants. But as Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville put it, “It was controlled defending by Celtic” Towards the end of the match, Barcelona turned to their bench and made three changes. Cue 60,000 gulps. Cesc Fabregas, David Villa and Gerard Pique all came on. But it was Celtic’s substitute, 18-year-old Tony Watt, who would make the headlines.

A long ball from Fraser Forster was mistimed by Xavi, and Watt ran through and finished like he had been doing it at this level for years. This sparked celebration in the stand like I have never seen before – sheer jubilation.

Despite a late goal from Lionel Messi, Celtic held on to the result that will live long in the memory. This was a brilliant night for Celtic and the whole of Scottish football.

This was not a difficult choice for my number one highlight.

Hope you enjoyed reading my highlights, feel free to tweet me yours. @Kieran_Psyl

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