CELTIC supporters will be doing all they humanly can come Tuesday evening to make their east end of Glasgow home a graveyard for visitors from Italy.
One man from that Mediterranean land will carry to his grave a Champions League night there. Massimo Donati remains the only Italian player to score for Celtic in the competition. He did so in the most outrageous circumstances, a 92nd-minute winner against Shakhtar Donetsk in November 2007, effectively propelling the club into the last 16 of the tournament.
Before this season’s mighty efforts of Neil Lennon’s men in setting up Tuesday’s knockout tie with Juventus, Donati’s deflected drive from 20 yards was the last time Celtic had been elevated to such an exalted place in European football.
“I will always remember that night because it was the best of my career, the highlight, the most magnifico moment,” says the 31-year-old, who now plays for Palermo. “I sometimes watch it on YouTube because, like Celtic, that goal is always in my heart, in my mind.”
And it is not just the goal but the scenes of frenzied jubilation it sparked that remain wonderfully vivid for the midfielder, who ripped off his shirt at full-time that evening, and hurled it in to the north stand as crowd chants of “Mo, Mo Massimo” vied for the airspace with an emotional rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone.
“It was so good a moment,” he says. And so crucial a moment. Had Donati’s shot failed to find the target, Celtic would have been on course to finish fourth rather than second in their group, despite having beaten his former club AC Milan – the only time Celtic have recorded a victory over reigning European champions – and Benfica in their previous home games. When his effort did fly in, and the whistle sounded seconds later, the game-changing nature of the goal, and the relief over Celtic’s seemingly ebbing hopes being suddenly reanimated, precipitated an outpouring of elation and incredulity not eclipsed until five years on when Tony Watt bagged the second goal for Celtic to ensure there would be no way back for Barcelona in the current Champions League campaign.
Donati watched that game with delight. He saw in the “great grafting”, the “will” to defend and the refusal to give in to the odds, reflected in an overwhelming possession deficit, a Celtic team in the image of Lennon.
“It is his Celtic. It is like him and as Celtic should be, and must be, to enjoy these magical nights,” he says. The Italian, on moving to Scotland in a £3 million deal from Milan, inherited the No.18 jersey of Lennon, who that summer moved to Nottingham Forest. He never inherited the Irishman’s indispensability or longevity, as was his expressed desire. He did, though, have a sense of what could lie ahead when being given the chance to work with the current Celtic manager after he returned to the coaching staff under Gordon Strachan late in to the Italian’s first season. “Strachan was my first gaffer, Neil was my second gaffer,” he says of a man he claimed wasn’t a victim of “sporting” hatred but “terrorism” on being told he had been sent an explosive device in the post.
Donati was a victim of bad timing in his two-year stint in Scotland. Strachan lost faith in the player, when, attempting to overturn a 3-2 home-leg deficit against Barcelona in the last-16 confrontation his Shakhtar strike earned, he struggled in the Nou Camp as the Catalans eased into the quarter-finals. “It was a hard game, they always kept the ball, kept passing. We ran a lot but didn’t touch the ball and were fortunate it was just a 1-0 loss.”
In his second season, Donati featured infrequently, but the management changeover in the summer of 2009 that led to Tony Mowbray taking charge seemed to give his Celtic career a second wind. Mowbray restored him to a central role but, by then, it was too late. On the final days of the transfer window he agreed a move to Bari, but not before Celtic had a fruitless return leg of a Champions League qualifier against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. That night, with Celtic appearing set to suffer their heaviest aggregate loss in Europe in trailing 3-0 after a 2-0 reverse in Glasgow, he conjured up a crashing volley to net in the closing moments. His last touch for the club, then, proved a scoring one of significance. “It was another magnifico moment, my farewell to the Celtic fans,” he says. “I wasn’t sure whether to leave and it is sad that I did. But that is life and I can’t cry about it now.”
Donati does not dwell on the unsatisfactory nature of his time at Celtic. “The club gave me the best times football has given me,” he says. “I played in the Champions League in big stadiums against big teams. And at Celtic I won a championship for the first and only time. I can only have great memories.”
National allegiances will not supercede nostalgia when Juventus visit Celtic Park on Tuesday. Juventus, he says, not only believe they will beat Celtic but that they can win the competition. An Italian team once more being top of the pile across the continent does not appeal to him in the way his old club forever will. “I will always be a Celtic fan so, of course, I want them to win. I still look up to see how they are doing every week.”
Donati thinks they “have a chance” to do the unexpected against the Turin side, who recorded a 1-0 win over his Palermo team in Sicily only eight weeks ago. Juve obviously have the better quality than Lennon’s side, he acknowledges, pointing to the presence of Gianluigi Buffon, Andreas Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Mirco Vicinic as giving the Italian champions a formidable spine.
“But it is not only quality that wins football matches,” he says. “AC Milan and Shakhtar had better quality than us when we beat them, and Barcelona had better quality than Celtic when they were beaten in Glasgow the other month. Juventus are not Barca, but they are a very good team. But very good teams, and even the best teams, find it difficult in Glasgow. The fantastic atmosphere created in that stadium makes it hard for everyone.” And hard to forget for those regaled by it.