STANDING over his penalty with nine minutes of normal time left to play, Kris Commons represented Celtic’s Champions League season in microcosm; cool under pressure and oozing with character.
No doubt his heart was beating harder than it’s ever done before in football, but on the outside he was the epitome of calm. He stood there, awaiting the whistle, like a man with no doubt.
Nothing riding on this, of course. Apart from victory, qualification and history. No pressure at all, apart from 60,000 people watching him between the cracks in their fingers and the certain knowledge in his own mind of the legions upon legions of others looking on from all over the world. Pressure can do strange things to a man. What it did to Commons was make him rifle his penalty straight and true, over the head of Sergei Pesyakov and into the Spartak Moscow net via the crossbar. As he ran away to celebrate there was an eruption inside Celtic Park that made you think of that old line about football being a religion, a cliché, but one that is true around here. Certainly, this was Celtic’s second coming. Having taken the lead and lost it, Commons showed them the light again.
There was doubt about the validity of the penalty award, but to have raised it last night would have been to risk death by laughing squad. Nobody in this place cared whether it was deserved or not, they were too busy whooping and hollering and giving praise to Neil Lennon for a feat of management in this competition that grows ever more impressive. He has taken his team into the last 16 with 10 handsome points and only the most one-eyed would dispute their right to take their place alongside the elite of the elite in the knockout jamboree.
This game had a dynamic like no other that Celtic have played in the Champions League this season, a must-win game, their first in the tournament. In the five that went before there was no heat on Celtic, not really. Nobody expected much when Benfica came to town in week one, nobody expected them to take anything from Moscow, nobody expected the pair of epics against Barcelona and even a fortnight ago when they went to Benfica there was more of a hope than an expectation of a result that in the end never came. Last night, they had to deliver. Had to.
There has been an other-worldly quality about the depth of support this team have received at times in their European adventure – particularly on that storied night against Barcelona and again last night – and something frankly supernatural about the way Celtic have plotted their way through the group. Their success was on the back of many things; a goalkeeper who has put in a series of remarkable performances, a defence that has had, for the most part, wonderful discipline and concentration, a midfield with bite and boundless energy and Lady Luck. Every team needs the old girl on their side. She’s been with Celtic from the off. And they’ve been good enough to make the most of her.
But that wasn’t the full story. Celtic’s ability to turn a possession famine into a points feast has been their watchword. Before last night they had created precious few goalscoring opportunities and yet they have been extraordinarily clinical in capitalising on them. Official statistics tell us that Celtic had, in their first five games, 22 attempts on target , scoring from seven of them. These are numbers to make the eyes water, a conversion rate that is, probably, the best of any team in any group in this competition. Certainly it is better than the behemoths of the game. Before last night, when Celtic found the target they ended up with a goal 31 per cent of the time. Real Madrid and Barcelona are running at 20 per cent. Borussia Dortmund marginally higher. Manchester United a percentage point higher again. For all their genius in front of goal, none of these teams has been as ruthlessly efficient in converting their chances as Celtic. In the story of their progression, it’s been an important factor.
On nights like this, you look for signs of strength and weakness, you look at players and try to figure out body language. The Russians were a classic case study. Smashed in the last three games they had played to the tune of 12-3, a run of failure that saw their manager sacked amid some kind of dressing room uprising, how would these guys respond?
They passed the body language test, though. Flew through it. They came out bouncing on their toes, like racehorses down at the starting stalls. Commons took one of them out of it in a tackle in the opening minutes and if that was a “Welcome to Glasgow” moment, Spartak seemed to reply, “Thanks”, as opposed to “No thanks”, the answer that Commons might have been looking for.
Spartak were brighter than a team supposedly in darkness ought to be. Dmitri Kombarov was sharp down the left and put in a cross in the 12th minute that made Celtic Park gulp and then holler when the thing was hoofed clear. Around him, there was Artem Dzyuba and Kim Kallstrom playing a one-two, Kallstrom firing a shot on goal that beat Forster’s outstretched hand, the kind that happened in slow motion as you watched to see if the ball beat the goalkeeper because it was going wide or because Kallstrom had seen a gap and plugged. It was the former. The stadium heaved a sigh of relief, then a roar of support followed by another soon after, this one beginning from the soles of the supporters’ feet and then erupting out of the top of their head. Celtic scored. And the ground shook.
Here we had it again, the story of their success in microcosm, good fortune combining with clinical finishing. One chance, one goal. Never give a sucker an even break might become their Champions League mantra. When Juan Insaurralde made the most frightful hash of the most simple task – trapping a rolling ball and getting it to safety – Gary Hooper seized on it and with his first-time shot thrashed it past Sergei Pesyakov.
Insaurralde will not be forgotten in these parts. A red card in the first match between these sides (when Spartak were leading 2-1) and now this howler of the ages on top of that. A legend, of sorts, was born last night.
The goal settled Celtic. Galvanised them, no question. They hassled and harried their visitors and they got on top of them. They started showing the same kind of studied intensity that helped bring down Barcelona a month ago. Spartak didn’t look sparky all of a sudden and no sooner had that thought entered the head than they roused themselves and scored. Ari got it. Dinked it up and over Fraser Forster’s colossal height and into the net despite the efforts of a retreating Kelvin Wilson.
Now the stadium turned to Barcelona for comfort, but there wasn’t any. No magic, no goals, no safety net. Celtic were on their own and they would remain that way, Barca incapable of making their life any easier by taking out the Portuguese. If they were going to get through this they were going to have to do it themselves.
We thought we saw bad omens out there. A Georgios Samaras shot that hit the post, an Efe Ambrose header that flew wide, a Charlie Mulgrew header from point-blank range that was tipped over. That conversion percentage rose at the same time as Celtic’s prospects fell. This, though, has been a season of late twists, against Barcelona in Barcelona and again in Glasgow and now once more there was an endgame that sent a shiver up the spine more readily than anything the cold could do on a Baltic but beautiful night in the continuing story of Celtic’s great adventure.