Lennon’s Celtic grow from Cubs to Lions

8 Nov

What a difference a Day Makes………..Lenny’s Lions restore my faith in Modern football.

Twenty four hours ago, I wrote about Manchester City’s 2-2 draw with Ajax in the Champions League.  I was angry.  Angry at my perception of a dishonest group of players, angry at a graceless and undignified Manager, angry at a seemingly indifferent set of home supporters, angry at modern players’ attitudes and pride in performance and identity with their club and fans.

What a difference a day makes.

From the time Sky’s cameras showed the emotional swathe of green and white scarves singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, one sensed something memorable was about to unfold.  It was the day after the 125th birthday of Celtic Football Club and the arguably best team in the world, Barcelona, was in Glasgow.   Celtic fans were again in place to protect Fortress Paradise and to carry their heroes to unheard of heights.  Celtic Park has seen this happen many times before.  There is something magic and unexplainable about European football nights in the East End of Glasgow.  What was about to happen is the stuff of dreams, wildest, ridiculous, far-fetched dreams.  This dream would become an unlikely reality.

Celtic started the game without key players such as captain Scott Brown, strikers Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes, up and coming star James Forrest and 2011 season Player of the Year Emilio Izzaguire.  The omens were, well, ominous but early on, young powerhouse Victor Wanyama, the Fenian Kenyan, muscled Sanchez off the ball and drove forward.  60,000 fans bellowed their approval as the early side to side chorus of “Celtic, Celtic, Come on You Boys in Green, Come on You Boys in Green, Glasgow’s Green and White, Glasgow’s Green and White” filled the night silence with passion and fervour.

Barcelona owned the ball, they pretty much have exclusivity to its possession in every match but Celtic’s back four of Lustig, Ambrose, Wilson and Matthews held their positions, stayed on their feet, not daring to dive into a rash tackle and risk a yellow card or a penalty or leave their team-mates exposed.  In midfield, the aforementioned Wanyama showed no respect for the reputations of Xavi and Iniesta and he made Alex Song look like a poor man’s Wanyama.  Alongside him, Joe Ledley grafted and chiselled away selflessly, covering, tackling and on each side the superbly cultured Charlie Mulgrew and the gifted Kris Commons sacrificed creativity for good old fashioned toil to help their full backs out.  Celtic’s first line of defence up front, Venezeulan Miku (the only man to have previously beaten Barcelona) and Samaras (who hadn’t trained since getting injured at the Nou Camp two weeks previously) kept the Barca defence vigilant when Celtic did make sporadic attacks.

One such sporadic attack was initiated by the awesome Wanyama as he powered forward before feeding Samaras on the right who won a corner in the 20th minute.  Celtic’s first chance to test Barca’s Achilles heel of a defence.  Mulgrew swung in a sumptuous delivery to the far post where Wanyama swatted away Jordi Alba with ease to power his header past Valdes.  Celtic Park erupted like a reawakened Vesuvius.  As Billy Connolly once put it, a great gigantic exclamation mark rose over Celtic Park. 1-0 to Celtic, pandemonium.

Barcelona’s response was immediate and expected.  Matthews and Lustig tested their powers of twisting and turning as Xavi and Iniesta passed and probed, Dani Alves and Jordy Alba got forward incessantly but when Barcelona finally did get into a scoring position, Fraser Forster was the impenetrable final wall as he first denied Messi low down at the near post, then fingertipped Messi’s rocket onto the bar.  It should’ve been a corner, but the referee Kuipers missed Forster’s glancing glove.  Barca now dominated as Celtic seemed aghast at being ahead and possession was being squandered sloppily, not something that is usually forgiven by this group of Barca players.  Celtic’s woodwork was again struck as Alves got down the right and his dinked cross evaded Lustig’s leap and Sanchez’s header brushed Forster’s left post and trickled outside………another exclamation mark rose, this one of relief.

Half time approached ever slowly, but mercifully Celtic saw the half out without conceding, something they just failed to manage at the Nou Camp, so to stay ahead at the break was crucial and gave the Celtic faithful a bone to guard tenaciously as throats were rested for 15 minutes.

The second half continued as the first with Barca monopolising possession and probing and testing Celtic’s concentration and discipline.  Neither was found wanting.  Full backs Lustig and Matthews in particular never lost runners and made timely interventions.  Any aerial stuff was dealt with by Ambrose and Wilson.  Wanyama in midfield was revelling in the whole battle with his physical power, anticipation and the fearless heart that has endeared him to the Celtic fans.  Alex Song’s frustrations had got the better of him and while on a yellow card, clattered into Miku.  The referee chose leniency over a baying home crowd and Vilanova summoned the former Arsenal man to the line before he was sent to it by Mr Kuipers.  Barca were clearly losing heart and ideas, yet still big Forster had to be at his brilliant best, making a wonderful double save from a Messi shot and spreading himself in front of Pedro’s rebound.

Messi again was cursing Forster when Alba set up the new Dad, but Forster threw himself to his left to claw away Messi’s goalbound effort.  The crowd rose to acclaim the Great Wall of Glasgow, thrilling stuff.

Lustig succumbed to injury past the 70 minute mark, but the substitution was surprising.  18 year old centre forward Tony Watt was sprang instead of a defensive swap, with Lennon rejigging his back four and midfield to give Watt his head and his chance.  Ten minutes later, Lennon’s courageous choice paid off in spades.

Messi’s free kick was anticipated well by Forster and he gathered the ball in his hands and punted down the centre.  A tired attempt to control the ball by Xavi saw him misjudge and completely miss the bouncing ball and young Watt was clear of Mascherano with nothing but grass and Valdes between him and the goal.  The Celtic fans rose as one, urged the kid on and with Mascherano now yards behind, Watt pulled the trigger like a veteran assassin, beating Valdes all ends up as the ball zoomed low into the corner.  If the roar for Wanyama’s goal was loud, this one blew the Richter Scale apart.  An explosion of ecstacy, delight, relief, bemusement and bewilderment all came together in a moment of memorable bliss, a moment that confirms the beauty and magnificence and universality of football, a moment that 18 year old Tony Watt will never tire of reliving.  Magic.

Still we refused to chalk up the three points.  Three days previously Watt had similarly put Celtic 2-0 up against Dundee United after 80 minutes, but Celtic’s concentration wilted and that game finished 2-2, so the question was whether Celtic could see this one out against far superior opposition and with most of the Celtic players now playing from memory as their limbs and lungs ached for respite.

The brave and spent Samaras was called ashore and Celtic’s forgotten stalwart Beram Kayal replaced him.  Still Barcelona passed the ball this way and that, still Celtic thwarted them until in the 89th minute, David Villa forced yet another save from Forster, but Messi was on hand to sweep the ball over the keeper to reduce the deficit.

Four minutes of torture and nerves followed but the Hoops held on and it was fitting that Wanyama was the last Celtic player to touch the ball as his long clearance out for a throw in was followed by the final whistle.  Read it and weep, and Rod Stewart certainly was weeping,  Celtic 2, Barcelona 1.

Gaffer Lennon embraced his backroom team, shook hands with Vilanova and embraced his Celtic heroes one by one and after his last player embrace, acknowledged the acclaim and adoration of the Celtic supporters.  He said in his post match interview that it was his wish to bring the thunder back to Celtic Park when he was appointed Manager, well he delivered on that promise with the lightning thrown in for good measure in the form of Watt.

What a difference a day makes.  If ever one wanted to compare and contrast two performances, the Man City v Ajax game and the Celtic v Barcelona would be the template.

City’s “superstars” and megabucks, Champions of the apparently best league in the world, seasoned internationals everywhere, reduced to eyeballing a referee having again come up short against a young and vibrant Ajax team and pretty much eliminated from the qualifying stage of the competition having been tipped for challenging for ultimate glory.

Then you had Lennon’s young Celtic team, bereft of key players, riddled with early 20 somethings like Forster, Wilson, Matthews, Wanyama and Watt, a club from a comatose Scottish Premier League, given no hope of challenging for a knockout phase spot, but this young team was turning over the mighty Barcelona!

Lennon’s Lions showed belief, organisation, discipline, pride, passion and no little skill to demonstrate yet again that anything is possible in football in any given match.   Their pride in their performance showed they identify with the people to whom Celtic is not only a football club, but is their life.   They play the Celtic way and Neil Lennon would not have them if they did not.  This performance gave football back to the fans, and reaffirmed to us romantics that sometimes, not always, but sometimes, underdogs can upset aristocrats.   An amazing night for Celtic, a renewal of our vows in our love for football.  Let us hope Lennon’s Lions claim that second spot, it would be a fitting reward for this highly promising young team.

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