APPARENTLY, a Swedish newspaper this week ruminated on the fact that Malmö had become a fearsome force in the European domain since more of their players started sporting facial fuzz. As the visitors last night came within a whisker of enduring a tie-ending opening to the Glasgow first leg of their Champions League play-off, the beard blether seemed something of a shaggy gob story.
By the end of 95 pulsating minutes, though, it was anything but. And all because of the man with the biggest bush of all on his chin. Jo Inge Berget produced a hair-of-the-dog performance where his days playing at Celtic Park were concerned. The football fates often decree this will be the case when a former player visits a club where he, eh, couldn’t cut it.
That was why so much of the chat beforehand had centred on the possibility that Berget would have an impact at Glasgow that had eluded him during a desperate six-month loan stint with the Scottish champions as Ronny Deila sought to settle into his new post.
Berget had discussed the possibility in the pre-match press conference by talking of “revenge” after the misery of his time at the club. He exacted a measure of that – and more importantly put his team right back into contention in the tie – when he lashed a diagonal effort high past Craig Gordon from the left-hand edge of the area only minutes into the second half.
It was a moment to have him twirling the extremities of his hipster beard with delight. The problem for Berget and his team was that they found themselves back two goals behind when Leigh Griffiths netted with a looping header after he had opened the scoring inside three minutes.
But Berget was to have the most dramatic impact when he arrowed a shot into the roof of the net from close range after Celtic failed to clear a corner in the fifth minute of added time. The slender 3-2 advantage to Deila’s side ensured Malmö were much the happier of last night’s combatants ahead of the Swedish leg next Tuesday.
It all seemed so clean cut for Celtic after 20 minutes. With his side two goals down and all over the (barber’s) shop, Age Hareide might have felt like getting the tweezers to the nasal hair of his charges just to snap them out of their daze.
We are conditioned to imbed national stereotypes into our perceptions of football teams and there was an expectation that the Swedish traits of athleticism and physical strength would be to the fore in Malmö’s efforts. Yet it was precisely the absence of such that allowed Celtic to run them ragged in those early stages. During that period, the beardies – all six of them in dark blue – were left looking like bum-fluffers.
No-one more so than captain and former Aberdeen midfielder Kari Arnasson. Although Griffiths’ third-minute goal was a product of pace and movement, the striker was able to benefit from Stefan Johansen’s slick through pass because centre-back Arnasson sluggishly played him onside. And Arnasson looked like a cultured midfielder not cut out to be a commanding defender when Nir Bitton powered in a 10th-minute header from a Johansen corner to leave the Swedish champions reeling.
The angst in their ranks was illustrated by Hareide taking to the edge of his technical area shortly afterwards to harangue Scott Brown for perceived over-zealousness.
In getting himself into the action as his side were struggling to do so, the wily 61-year-old was perhaps deploying a measure of psychology.
It was as if he was saying; “I’m standing up to these bruisers, time you did!” His side seemed to respond, showing an ability to hang tough, and pushing themselves up the pitch. When they did so, the fragility of Dedryck Boyata told them there was something in this first leg for them.
On the back of that blistering opening spell, it told of the changing dynamics of the game that it was Celtic who were relieved to hear the whistle for half-time and that there had been no scoring subsequent to that opening salvo. The warning signs were there and Malmö proved they were not at Celtic Park last night simply to watch the grass, or their beards, grow.