By Martin Macdonald
|HOOPS HEROES PROGRESS TO LAST 16
Dubbed as Group G’s 'whipping boys' at the beginning of the tournament, Celtic have defied the odds and booked their place in the last 16 of the Champions League thanks to a 2-1 victory over Spartak Moscow on Wednesday December 5.
The Hoops went into the match knowing that if they bettered Benfica’s result against Barcelona in the other match in the group, then they would feature in the draw for the next round on December 20, and it was a Kris Commons penalty eight minutes from time that sealed the achievement.
The teams sparred in the opening stages, but it was Spartak who threatened first. Kim Kallstrom exchanged a lovely one-two on the edge of the box with Emenike, but saw his curled effort sail wide of the mark.
The Hoops began to grow in confidence, and eventually took the lead 20 minutes in when Georgios Samaras spotted the run of Gary Hooper in behind the Spartak defence and clipped the ball through. The Englishman pounced on a mistake by Juan Insaurralde and ran through to lash the ball into the bottom right corner, with the home fans erupting in nerve-busting cheer.
Charlie Mulgrew’s corner kicks caused problems for the Russian side all evening, and the home side almost scored a second shortly after their opening goal through a set-piece from the Scot. The ball was whipped in to the near post and the ball eventually fell to Commons on the edge of the area who screwed an attempt towards the bottom corner. However, the ball went a whisker by the post.
Spartak, however, were enjoying the majority of possession in the match, and were able to capitalise five minutes before the break. Emenike picked out Ari in space on the right-hand side of the box and the Brazilian showed composure to dink the ball over Fraser Forster into the net, despite Kelvin Wilson’s best attempts at a clearance.
Celtic came out of the blocks with a lot more confidence, and managed to claw back the possession count from the visitors.
As the match progressed, Spartak retreated more into their own half, and Mulgrew thought he had scored the winner with 15 minutes remaining when he bounced a header towards goal, only to see goalkeeper Sergei Pesyakov tip the ball over the bar.
Neil Lennon’s side were determined to keep their destiny in their own hands, and done so on 83 minutes when Samaras went down under the challenge of Marek Suchy inside the box. Celtic Park took an intake of breath as Commons stepped up to hit the penalty, but he cemented his status as a hero by smashing the ball off the underside of the crossbar and in.
Spartak never looked like threatening after that, and had more misery heaped on them in the closing stages when Kallstrom picked up a second yellow card for a tackle on Commons.
When the news came through that the match at Camp Nou had ended 0-0, there were scenes of enormous relief and ecstasy in the stands as the Celtic fans celebrated a historic achievement by Lennon and his lions.
|LENNON JUBILANT AT SEALING QUALIFICATION
Celtic manager Neil Lennon has praised the effort, commitment, and attitude of his players following the Glasgow side’s odds-defying progression to the last 16 of the Champions League.
A late penalty from Kris Commons, coupled with Benfica’s inability to beat Barcelona, leave the Hoops second place in the group, which sees them involved in the draw for the knockout stage of Europe’s elite competition, and the Northern Irish boss was understandably elated. Speaking after the match, he said:
"It means the world to me. Obviously I´m a young manager and this is my first year in the Champions League. So to qualify with 10 points, I´m very proud of the players. They performed a miracle. No one gave us a prayer going into this group, and we have qualified and deservedly so.”
Lennon also discussed what it meant for the club as a whole to progress among such stiff competitors. Celtic were the pot four team in Group G, but surpassed all expectations to finish runners up. He said:
“It´s a privilege to manage this club. It´s not easy at times as there are great expectations on you. Getting into this campaign was vitally important for myself and just to see where I could take it.
"We have recruited well. We have built a decent team who are young and hungry and not fazed by the financial side of it. They want to get better and they have done the club proud. I´m very proud of the players. They performed a miracle. No one gave us a prayer going into this group, and we have qualified and deservedly so.”
The Hoops now find themselves remaining at the head table with Europe’s biggest sides, and will be eagerly looking to find out the next chapter of their fantastic tale when the round of 16 draw is made on December 20.
|NEXT MATCH: REVENGE ON THE CARDS VERSUS KILLIE
Celtic’s next match sees the Scottish Premier League champions travel to East Ayrshire to take on Kilmarnock at Rugby Park.
Neil Lennon will certainly be wary of the match against Killie, as Kenny Shiels' men defeated the Celts 2-0 in the previous encounter between the sides in October.
Cillian Sherdian and Liam Kelly both sealed the win at Celtic Park in a match which came directly after a Champions League match for Celtic.
It is the same this time round as the SPL leaders disposed of Spartak Moscow in Europe on Wednesday to seal progression to the next round of the Champions League.
With European duties now put to bed for a few months, Lennon will be eager for his side to stamp their authority on their domestic league.