Former Celtic goalkeeper Pat Bonner has backed his old side to return to winning ways when re-engaging with Champions League opposition tomorrow night, just days after being held at home by Arbroath.
Parkhead was a long way from full against the Second Division side, and a shocked silence greeted Steven Doris’ deflected equaliser in the dying minutes of Saturday’s fourth-round Scottish Cup encounter. It will be a different story tomorrow evening when Spartak Moscow are the opposition at Parkhead. A win for Neil Lennon’s side will guarantee them a place in the last 16 at the expense of Benfica, who face Barcelona at the Nou Camp.
Bonner acknowledged the difficulty in coping with different intensity levels.”It’s different from the old European format we had, of home and away,” he said. “You have six games and you’ve got to peak for all of them to try to get the result and there is always that dip afterwards. It’s very difficult to manage that.
“The top teams can do it because they’ve got huge squads of players, good players sitting in the reserves. Celtic have got to adapt and learn how to do that as a group. It’s a great learning process for Neil [Lennon] and the players but they’ve probably done better than we expected.”
Bonner fondly recalls mixing with the best of the best in the old European Cup, and picks out a game in which Johan Cruyff made his last appearance in the tournament in 1982. “The biggest night for me was Ajax, not so much at Parkhead but out at Amsterdam,” he said. “That was a fantastic night because we were up against a fantastic Ajax team, [Jesper] Olsen and Cruyff, who was playing his last few games and he was taking off. We were one down and Danny McGrain scored one of the great goals, where it ricocheted off three or four people and went into the net off George McCluskey. I was only a young kid but I played quite well that night to keep it to one goal.”
Celtic progressed because of McCluskey’s late winner that night, after a 2-2 draw at Parkhead. However, they were eliminated in the second round by Real Sociedad. Bonner is hopeful that Lennon’s side can avoid such a disappointing end to another Champions League campaign – where they, as Bonner and his team-mates did with Ajax, have overcome a giant of European football in the shape of Barcelona – although he acknowledges that finishing third and progressing to the Europa League could help prolong their European run.
“You could argue that they might get through this and then get knocked out in the next game or they go into the Europa League and have a few more games,” he said. “But they won’t be thinking that way. All of us would like to see them in the next round of the Champions League. They haven’t been that creative this year, they have struggled a little bit on occasions to score goals but I think Wednesday night takes care of itself. They’ll be up for it and I fully expect them to win.”
Bonner believes former Celtic winger Aiden McGeady will want to come back and “put on a bit of a show” after a disappointing performance in the Luzhniki stadium in October in the first game between the sides. Celtic won 3-2 on that night, a result which ignited their campaign after a 0-0 draw in the opening game against Benfica. “I know he has had problems with his fitness, but I think he will play,” he said. “They [Spartak] have a new manager in Valery Karpin, who was previously sitting upstairs but is now back on the touchline. I think the players will be wanting to impress him. He will be questioning whether a few of them should be at the club because of their results in Europe this season.
“It’s not going to be an easy game for Celtic,” he added. “It is going to be a night of nerves and Aiden will play his part in that. He will want to impress, even though there is no question he is a Celtic supporter deep down.”
James Forrest, who will miss tomorrow night’s game through injury, is also wary of the threat posed by McGeady. Speaking after yesterday’s Scottish Cup fifth round draw, where Celtic learned they will face Raith Rovers if they can dispose of Arbroath in next week’s replay, he said: “He’ll want to show our fans that he’s still got it. He wasn’t too happy with how he performed against us in Moscow but this will be his first time back at Celtic Park so he’ll have a point to prove.
“Aiden plays in the same position as me so I used to watch him every day in training and learn from him.”