Stephen Halliday: We could be heroes, said Lennon, and players now a step nearer that goal
ON THE eve of Celtic’s final Champions League qualifier against Helsingborgs this season, Neil Lennon challenged his players to take command of their own destiny and emerge as a new breed of heroes in the club’s history.
In Moscow, Lennon’s side took perhaps their most significant step yet towards achieving the elevated status he craves for them.
For while no-one should be rushing to compare this Celtic team with those which delivered the greatest moments in the club’s 50 years of often illustrious European competition, they nonetheless made an indelible imprint on that history with their dramatic 3-2 win at the Luzhniki Stadium.
The triumph over Spartak Moscow was seminal enough in its own right as Celtic’s first victory away from home in the group stage of the Champions League. But it also stretched Celtic’s recent unbeaten away run in Europe under Lennon to five matches, beating the previous all-time club record of four they shared with Martin O’Neill’s excellent 2003 side and the 1972 vintage overseen by the great Jock Stein.
Nothing could be more telling for Lennon in enhancing his reputation as a successful Celtic manager than curing the travel sickness which has undermined the Parkhead club in Europe so often in their recent history.
It was always going to be the key factor in allowing Lennon to back up his bold claim that Celtic were not simply back in the group stage of the Champions League to make up the numbers this season.
It placed him in a hugely promising position to make further progress from Group G.
Even before Celtic head into the back-to-back fixtures against top-seeds Barcelona, the four-point gap they have already opened up over Spartak leaves them handily placed to at the very least finish third in the group and move into the knockout phase of the Europa League beyond the turn of the year.
But having now tested themselves against both Benfica and Spartak, Lennon’s players should lack nothing in the belief that they are capable of joining nailed-on certainties Barca in making it to the last 16 of the Champions League.
There was nothing straightforward about Celtic’s victory. No-one would have expected that to be the case, given their wretched record of 20 defeats and just one draw from their previous 21 assignments on the road in the group stage of European football’s elite tournament.
After a roller-coaster evening in the Russian capital, however, it was a win which was fully merited against a Spartak side which contributed to its own downfall with the dismissal of Argentine defender Juan Insaurralde shortly after the hour mark.
Spartak were 2-1 in front at that stage, their Nigerian striker Emmanuel Emenike having taken advantage of slack Celtic defending to cancel out Gary Hooper’s 12th-minute opener for the Scottish champions. After an opening spell when Celtic found it difficult to secure any worthwhile possession, Hooper’s 60th goal in his 99th appearance for the club was a master class in the counter-attacking game Lennon has so effectively introduced to his team in Europe.
Victor Wanyama’s robust challenge won the ball in midfield to set Mikael Lustig clear down the right, the full-back’s low cross touched in from close range by Hooper who had crucially edged in front of his marker Nicolas Pareja. Had Hooper not needlessly drifted into an offside position before heading home a Georgios Samaras cross 12 minutes later, Celtic would have been in firm command before half-time.
As it was, familiar vulnerabilities re-emerged to set them back. In his development of this Celtic team over the past two and a half years, establishing a reliable central defensive partnership has proved to be the most problematic challenge facing Lennon.
He has been encouraged in recent weeks by the form of Kelvin Wilson, the big English centre-half finally producing some evidence of the ability his manager had seen in him when they were briefly team-mates at Nottingham Forest a few years ago. But Wilson, whose contribution in the scoreless draw at home to Benfica on Matchday One was singled out for praise by Lennon, was culpable for the goal which cancelled out Celtic’s encouraging start to the match.
It would be wrong to detract from the sumptuous quality of the long, diagonal pass picked out from central midfield by Spartak’s technically-gifted Swedish playmaker Kim Kallstrom which placed the Celtic defence on the back foot. Wilson, however, was slow to react as pacy Brazilian forward Ari latched on to the ball and cushioned a perfect cutback into the path of Emenike for a simple close range tap-in.
Fraser Forster has played a major role in Celtic addressing that lack of defensive solidity in their recent European games, stretching back to the Europa League group stage last season, but the big English goalkeeper was at fault for the goal which put Spartak 2-1 up three minutes into the second half. He could only palm Ari’s deflected long-range shot wide into the path of Demy de Zeeuw, the Dutch midfielder rolling the ball back across the six-yard box to present Emeniki with his second easy finish.
It was the kind of moment which would have completely flattened many previous Celtic teams on foreign soil but they remained resolute on this occasion and were hugely encouraged by Insaurralde’s straight red card for clipping Hooper’s heels as the striker raced clear on goal.
Lennon’s introduction of James Forrest for Wanyama signalled his ambition and the winger made an instant impact when his close-range shot was blocked by Spartak keeper Sergei Pesyakov, only to rebound off captain Dmitri Kombarov for the equaliser.
A point would have been a decent enough return for Celtic, but they sensed Spartak’s vulnerability and plundered a stunning 90th-minute winner when Samaras rose to meet Emilio Izaguirre’s cross and guide home a tremendous header from around 14 yards.
Lennon was fully entitled to savour the celebrations at full-time. His search for new Celtic heroes bore rich fruit tonight.
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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