ONE Celtic player surely would have felt a little uncomfortable cursing his team’s luck, and cursing their wretched display, as Maribor became the second side in three Champions League qualifiers to beat Ronny Deila’s men on the pitch this summer, and end their hopes in the competition for good this time.
Goalkeeper Craig Gordon must surely feel fortunate merely to be part of such a scene – even if it was a sorry one at the conclusion – and for what he offered even on a grim night, the Celtic support will feel fortunate to have the 31-year-old.
That was reflected in the reaction to a rumour that spread across the Twittersphere yesterday lunchtime that Gordon would not appear for the Champions League play-off decider last night.
The very thought induced paroxysms of fear among those Celtic fans whose digits remained steady enough to type.
Quite a reference for a goalkeeper with only three appearances for the club, and five competitive outings to his name in total across the previous three-and-a-half years.
In reality, the kinks created by unfounded fears that Gordon had been ruled out of the return leg of the Champions League play off – supposedly following a scan on a dodgy knee that came close to destroying his career were – not entirely related to Gordon’s powers of regeneration. Indeed, as commanding and – impressively – sharp as the player has been in recent weeks, the truth is his welfare was such a concern because of the little trust the Celtic support retain in Lukasz Zaluska.
In itself, that has placed Gordon in a curious position. Restored to the Scotland squad this week by Gordon Strachan after having last represented his country in a 3-0 win over the Faroe Islands in November 2010, the Hearts hall-of-famer has suddenly been returned to a status he hasn’t enjoyed for five years.
Gordon is the keeper Celtic manager Deila has entrusted with No 1 status from the moment that Fraser Forster was sold to Southampton for £8 million three weeks ago. It seemed a bold move. Especially since, within two years of Gordon’s own £9m move to the English top flight in 2007, he was struggling to retain that standing at a Sunderland he joined as the most expensive proponent of his discipline.
Two arm fractures, a variety of knee injuries and operations, and two years of seeming retirement later, and Gordon is once more operating at the level that was expected to be his natural habitat from his earliest days as a precious talent at Tynecastle. He seemed then to have the presence, and presence of mind, to be suited for the grandest stage. And despite Celtic’s crummy display last night, he might have been tempted to feel that, even if he does have a knee that might give him gyp, it need not preclude him coming through tests such as that which Maribor offered up – despite the fact he ended up on the losing side.
In failing to press him into action for long spells, what was required of Gordon was concentration more than any sinew-stretching contortions. It was 28 minutes before he had a save to make, and then his alertness and agility allowed him to inspire confidence. He does that, just as his Celtic understudy Zaluska has an unfortunate tendency to do the opposite.
And yet, when Gordon was required to slap his over-sized goalie gloves on the ball for the first time, his contact recalled that from Zaluska that brought Inverness a winning goal at the weekend.
Gordon pushed a Mitja Viler drive out in front of him, just as Zaluska had knocked a cross into the danger area. What happened next was where the two incidents diverged. The Pole was helpless as the ball cannoned off his own player and whooshed straight back past him. Gordon, however, whether through good goalkeeping or good luck, was able to shove the ball into his chest after it ricocheted back his way off Tavares. It looked as if Gordon was possessed of the Forster ability of making saves at crucial times when, the next time he was called up midway through the second period, he stood his ground at his near post to block from Dare Vrsic. But the nerves that Gordon succeeded in never betraying were all too evident as a hellish scramble in front of him ended with Tavares being able to launch a dipping drive from 15 yards that arced over him after 75 minutes.
But for Gordon pushing away an angled effort from the through-on-goal Jean-Philippe Mendy the tie would have been ended two minutes later. As it was, Gordon merely delayed what had seemed all-too-on-the-cards from the one moment the keeper was beaten.