KRIS Commons showed commendable composure to blast home the multi-million pound penalty which sent Celtic through to the last 16 of the Uefa Champions League following another extraordinary night of drama at a packed Parkhead.
Celtic: Hooper, 22; Commons (pen), 81
Spartak: Ari, 39
Referee: F Brych (Ger)
The Celtic manager was in a considerable minority three months ago when he said finishing runners-up to Barcelona in Group G was “doable”. On Wednesday night, his players dramatically vindicated his faith in their potential.
Victory over Spartak Moscow, secured by a Kris Commons penalty kick eight minutes from time, saw Celtic take ten points in a Champions League group for the first time. Coupled with Barcelona’s goalless draw with Benfica in the Nou Camp, it booked Celtic’s place in the
last-16 draw in Nyon on
It was achieved the hard way on the night, Spartak dominating possession for long spells and cancelling out Gary Hooper’s opening goal through Ari’s strike before half-time.
But no-one can deny Lennon and his players deserve their place in the knockout phase of Europe’s elite tournament after a series of fixtures which saw them win in Moscow and then engineer the epic 2-1 home win over Barcelona.
This was Lennon’s finest hour.
While Celtic Park produced its customary fevered atmosphere for such an occasion, this time it was tangibly laced with nervous tension. The fact that what Lennon’s men did on their own behalf might not be enough to secure progress seemed to dilute the sense of anticipation around the stadium.
Hooper’s breakthrough strike restored a more euphoric and confident mood among the home support, albeit the nagging fear of Benfica earning a win against the odds in Barcelona remained in the background.
The lead perhaps flattered Celtic when it arrived, Spartak having played some composed and fluent football in the opening 20 minutes. The home side, deployed in a flexible formation which allowed both Kris Commons and Georgios Samaras some freedom to roam in support of Hooper, struggled to find any significant rhythm in the opening stages.
Celtic did earn a couple of set piece opportunities in promising positions, but Charlie Mulgrew’s delivery was not of optimum standard and they were dealt with fairly comfortably by the Spartak defence.
Despite already being consigned to bottom spot in the group, Spartak appeared motivated for the task in hand. The first moment of alarm for the Celtic defence came in the 11th minute when Spartak captain Dmitri Kombarov surged down the left and swept over a cross. It found Ari on the right of the penalty area but the Brazilian forward was unable to execute what looked a simple pass inside to unmarked team-mate Artem Dzyuba, allowing Celtic to scramble the ball to safety.
Commons was at the heart of Celtic’s first menacing attack, working the ball to Mulgrew whose first-time cross from the left was plucked out of the air by Spartak goalkeeper Sergei
Pesyakov just ahead of the lurking Hooper.
The slick movement of the Russian side continued to trouble Celtic at the other end, a fine exchange of passes between Kim Kallstrom and Dzyuba culminating in the Swedish international driving a low right-foot shot
narrowly wide of Fraser Forster’s right-hand post from around
Celtic looked in desperate need of a goal to settle them down and, when it came, it owed much to Spartak central defender Juan Insaurralde. The big Argentinian, whose dismissal in Moscow was a turning point in Celtic’s 3-2 win in the first group match between the teams, pressed the self-destruct button again.
Samaras attempted to pick out Hooper with a through ball but succeeded only in drilling it straight to Insaurralde. But the Spartak man seemed to trip over his own feet, re-directing the ball into open space in front of Hooper. The striker needed no second invitation, sprinting onto it and producing a stunning finish, his right-foot shot beating Pesyakov low to the goalkeeper’s left.
The goal did not have the calming effect on his team Lennon would have hoped for, however, and dangerous Nigerian striker Emmanuel Emenike wasted a chance to equalise immediately for Spartak when he blazed a shot wide from the edge of the penalty area.
Commons came close to doubling Celtic’s lead, shooting just wide of Pesyakov’s right-hand post after a Mulgrew corner broke into his path, then Scott Brown drove a Mikael Lustig cross straight at the goalkeeper.
But it was Spartak who were rewarded for their greater share of possession and counter-attacking threat when they equalised six minutes before the interval. Celtic were stretched all too easily at the back when Emenike spread the ball to Ari on the right of the penalty area and his neat lob over Forster was merely helped into the net by Kelvin Wilson’s attempt to head it clear from under the crossbar.
Celtic noticeably attempted to bring a greater level of intensity to their play at the start of the second half with Commons continuing to look the likeliest source of a second goal. He saw one dangerous cross cleared by the Spartak defence, then set up a good opportunity for Brown which the Celtic captain could only steer tamely into the grateful grasp of Pesyakov.
Lennon would have been looking for a greater contribution by Samaras in the second half, the man who has been
Celtic’s European specialist this season having been fairly subdued in the first 45 minutes.
There was certainly improved zest in the Greek international’s work and he was unfortunate not to put Celtic back in front in the 51st minute.
He was picked out by Lustig’s cross from the right. Pesyakov was beaten by Samaras’ right-foot volley from around
14 yards but the ball clipped the outside of the goalkeeper’s left-hand post.
The Celtic players could not have been helped by a piece of misinformation which swept around the stadium like wildfire, a jubilant roar going up in the belief Barcelona had gone in front against Benfica while it
in fact remained goalless in
Celtic still had work to do. Amid the growing tension, the home fans greeted the return of Aiden McGeady to Parkhead with applause when he replaced Ari in Spartak’s first substitution of the night.
Lennon sent Tunisian striker Lassad on for Beram Kayal, effectively making up a three-pronged frontline with Samaras and Hooper as Celtic gambled in search of a winner.
They were at their most threatening from set pieces, Efe Ambrose heading just wide from close range and then Mulgrew forcing a reaction save by Pesyakov, both from Commons’ deliveries.
Persistence paid off for the home side with the 81st minute penalty award. It was certainly of the soft variety, although there was definitely contact on Samaras by Marek Suchy as the striker shielded the ball on the left of the area. German referee Felix Brych had no doubt, pointing straight at the spot. Commons stepped forward and smashed the ball down the middle, beating Pesyakov via the underside of the crossbar to send Celtic Park into ferment.
Commons would not see the final whistle as he was carried off on a stretcher following a wild challenge by Kallstrom which earned the Swede, booked
earlier, a red card.
Celtic: Forster, Lustig (Matthews 71), Wilson, Ambrose, Izaguirre; Commons, Brown (Ledley 84), Kayal (Lassad 73), Mulgrew; Samaras; Hooper. Subs not used: Zaluska, Miku, Rogne, Wattr.
Spartak: Pesyakov, K.Kombarov, Insaurralde, Suchy, D.Kombarov; Carioca, Kallstrom; Jurado, Dzyuba, Ari (McGeady 61); Emenike. Subs not used: Dykan, Bryzgalov, Pareja, Yakoviev, De Zeeuw, Kozlov.