In A change of fortune to rival any of the turnarounds that Celtic have ever enjoyed, Legia Warsaw, 6-1 aggregate conquerors of the Scottish champions in the third qualifying round, were yesterday effectively expelled by Uefa from the Champions League for fielding a player who was still under suspension.
In a whirlwind chain of events, Celtic were thus reinstated in yesterday’s draw for the play-offs and will now face Maribor of Slovenia in the final tie that determines who moves forward into the lucrative Champions League group stages. It is a hurdle they will have to negotiate without their England international Fraser Forster, who is heading to Southampton for a medical after a fee believed to be around £10 million was last night accepted by Celtic.
The Scottish champions had turned down one offer from the English Premier League club for the 26-year-old goalkeeper. The move will now proceed subject to a successful medical on the south coast this weekend, with personal terms also reported to have been agreed.
Forster’s former club Newcastle – from whom Celtic signed the player for £2m –will receive 25 per cent of the transfer fee.
At Murrayfield on Wednesday, the Legia manager Henning Berg put on suspended player Bartosza Bereszynski with just four minutes left of their 2-0 second-leg win over Celtic, who had lost 4-1 in Warsaw. Bereszynski had not been properly registered for Legia’s matches against St Patrick and therefore only one game of his three-match suspension had been served.
The Uefa delegate spotted the mystifying error – lists of suspended players are freely available to all clubs – and under Article 18 of the Champions League regulations, Uefa’s disciplinary body ordered that Legia forfeit the match. Celtic were awarded a 3-0 victory that put them through on away goals, the aggregate score being 4-4 – had Legia scored either of their two penalties on the previous Wednesday, they would have gone through.
Celtic manager Ronny Deila astonished the media by first of all saying that he felt sorry for fellow Norwegian Berg. “It has been a very strange day and my first thoughts go to Legia and my friends from Norway,” said Deila. “It is very hard to talk about it because I feel sorry for Legia. They put on a very good performance and now find themselves out because of this thing. Of course I feel for Henning Berg. It must be very hard to deal with that. I know some of the people involved and I know what is at stake.”
Even if Celtic do not progress, they will play in the Europa League without facing another qualifying match, thereby guaranteeing upwards of £5m revenue for the Parkhead club – beating Maribor could be worth north of £15m to them. Legia have admitted what they call “an administrative error” and have said they will appeal against the decision, but the rules are there in black and white and precedent suggests the appeal will fail.
On 2 August 2012, Cameroon international Eric Matoukou scored a goal during the first leg of the 2012–13 Uefa Europa League third qualifying round match against Mura 05 of Slovenia, which Arsenal Kyiv won 3-0, but it was later determined that like Bereszynski, he had not been properly registered for earlier matches and therefore had not served out a suspension from the previous season.
Subsequently the Slovenian side was awarded a 3-0 win by Uefa and even though Arsenal Kyiv won the return leg on 9 August, 2012, they lost 3-2 on aggregate. Uefa rules do not distinguish between a player who plays one minute or 90, so it would appear that Legia’s appeal must fail. Berg told Legia’s website last night: “I’m sorry for the whole staff and all the players. Some came today with tears in his eyes. Our dreams can get compromised. This is a disaster.
“There should be punishment, but adequate, and taking into account common sense and the spirit of sport.”
Deila confirmed that Celtic had made no protest: “We haven’t been involved in this process. It is a Uefa decision.”
Apparently no-one at Celtic had a clue what was going on until Legia announced the Uefa investigation themselves – the manager said he found out “from the internet”.
Now he must prepare Celtic for Maribor, but emphasised that St Johnstone, who are Celtic’s first Premiership opponents next Wednesday, are the priority. “Of course the Champions League has been our goal all the time,” said Deila. “Now we have a second chance we have to try and use it and do everything we can.
“It is going to be even better in Celtic Park so that is very good for us as well. I know it has been said I want to get a whole new team but that is not true. I want to do it my way but there are plenty good players here and we need to get the best out of them.
“We need to build up a new team but you can’t turn around every player. We need to start from scratch with each other and build a philosophy of how we want to play. That’s what I meant – not getting 20 new players in. Of course, we do need some new players and we will get them before the play-off round.
“I’m confident we can progress against Maribor but first we have St Johnstone and we must start there. We need good performances and that must start on Wednesday.”
Speaking before the Forster development, Deila said he was sure Celtic will spend if they need to. “We could get the players in, but we can’t pay the salaries because you will ruin the whole club,” he said. “One thing fans should be proud of, and I am proud of, is that this is a club that is well-organised and well driven. That is going to be more important in the future.”
Maribor (Slovenia) v Celtic (Scotland)
Salzburg (Austria) v Malmö (Sweden)
AaB (Denmark) v APOEL (Cyprus)
Steaua (Romania) v Ludogorets (Hungary)
Slovan Bratislava (Slovakia) v BATE (Belarus)
Besiktas (Turkey) v Arsenal (England)
Standard Liege (Belgium) v Zenit (Russia)
Copenhagen (Denmark) V Bayer Leverkusen (Germany)
Lille (France) v Porto (Portugal)
Napoli (Italy) v Athletic Bilbao (Spain)
Matches to be played 19/20 August and 26/27 August.