IN LIGHT of the headlines created by Ronny Deila’s pre-match press conference comments, it was a little surprising to detect the usual scent of fried burgers drifting across the car park on arrival at Celtic Park last night.
There has not, though, been a complete ban on fast food. Only the Celtic players have been ordered to become mean, lean fighting machines – or else.
Just as well, because the fans were in need of an energy boost if they were to replicate the kind of European night atmosphere we have come to expect inside this stadium. They proved well up to the task, evoking memories of nights when you could be confident in the knowledge that Celtic Park was the only arena to be at in European week.
Indeed, it was this week last year that Barcelona arrived on Champions League duty and found the natives to be on their usual good form. Centre-half Gerard Pique later tweeted his admiration: “No words to describe the atmosphere at Celtic Park,” he wrote, after his side had emerged with a 1-0 victory.
There might not have been too many GNK Dinamo players moved to pay such a tribute last night, but this was a lot better than many had feared would be the case. The supporters greeted the final whistle with huge acclaim. It was, though, shot through with relief since Dinamo were making mischief with a run of dangerous corners.
Celtic made the judicious decision to close the top tier of the stadium, meaning the supporters were tightly packed into the ground. The pre-match rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone might not have contained quite the same spine-tingling properties, but it was a close approximation of what it is on more high-octane occasions. Sadly, there is not much they can do about the Europa League theme tune, which can’t possibly emulate the overblown drama of the Champions League anthem.
A half-full Celtic Park might have looked slightly denuded last night, but it staged a decent match. While they lived dangerously at times, Celtic were probably worth their victory. Dinamo were competent enough opposition and they were certainly not questioning Celtic’s fitness levels at the end. This victory was earned, make no mistake.
It was incumbent on the players to try to help encourage the fans to sing. Celtic certainly did their part, going ahead inside six minutes and showing a commendable zest for the fray. There was little to suggest they had been gathering in conspiratorial pods to consume stodgy foods in the run-up to kick-off. Match-winner Kris Commons looked especially trim – or at least a lot trimmer than in recent weeks.
He exhibited a fine turn of pace to latch on to Anthony Stokes’ neat ball into his path and drive the ball into the net. But he had also played a significant part in the build-up, creating space by dummying Emilo Izaguirre’s pass which allowed Stokes to provide the assist with an astute first-time lay-off.
Commons was a buzzbomb of energy at this stage as he dementedly closed players down. Even the Dinamo goalkeeper was fazed by such close attentions at one point. However, having passed the ball straight to Commons, the striker over-hit his pass to Stokes. His team-mate would only have had to tap the ball into the goal. Considering his poor record in Europe, it was little wonder that Stokes spent most of the next five minutes railing against his colleague.
After all, the Irishman has only scored twice in 22 appearances in Europe and these goals came in a single match, against Rennes three years ago. So he was more eager than anyone to get his name on the scoresheet, particularly given the competition for strikers at Celtic Park.
Leigh Griffiths was at least promoted to the squad and took his place on the bench, having been alerted to the need for a period of ultra-clean living following Deila’s pre-match outburst. But the manager was true to his word after suggesting that Griffiths could play a part last night after a period in purdah.
When 20 minutes into the second half the manager signalled for the substitutes warming up behind the goal to return to the dug-out, no-one scurried faster than Griffiths back to base. But it was Beram Kayal who was instructed to get stripped and prepare himself for action as a replacement for Commons. Griffiths looked crestfallen.
He did, however, make an appearance after 76 minutes – his first action since scoring to secure a draw against Dundee at the end of August. He replaced Mubarak Wakaso and was as keen as ever to make an impression, shooting at his very first opportunity.
On-loan John Guidetti stands as the biggest threat to both Stokes and Griffiths’ place in the team. He was ineligible for last night’s game although causing Uefa’s ears – and those of Legia Warsaw chairman Dariusz Mioduski – to prick up was the news he had been inadvertently included in a team tweeted by the official Celtic Twitter feed prior to the game. Fortunately, he was not in the line-up that later took to the field.
Guidetti did make an appearance at half-time, and in an on-pitch interview mentioned how impressed he was by the atmosphere in the first half. There were perhaps 30,000 fewer than watched the match against Barcelona a year ago. But they could at least leave knowing that their European hopes remain very much alive.