Celtic banished an irksome hoodoo after a magnificent 3-2 victory over Spartak Moscow in the Luzhinki Stadium. Whatever the particulars of the long-term away track-record, Neil Lennon took momentous steps in his side’s development by delivering the kind of knife-edge result that has been lacking in previous European campaigns.
Celtic lineupWith only Adam Matthews and Lassad Nouioui the main losses to injury, it was a reasonably full-strength squad to choose from – albeit accounting for the still-returning big players like Scott Brown, Georgios Samaras, Beram Kayal and Joe Ledley. The latter two only made the bench, meaning Efe Ambrose continued at centre-back, preferred to Thomas Rogne.
Charlie Mulgrew surprisingly made a rare start in the centre of midfield alongside Victor Wanyama, making for a particularly big and rugged shield ahead of the back four. But it was a tetchy start, with possession being given up with an ease that belied Lennon’s customary, cautious European 4-4-1-1. Here, Brown was the furthest forward midfielder, which works well on two levels: harassing Spartak’s deep-lying creator(s), and relieving Brown of too much positional responsibility.
Spartak LineupSpartak were without first-choice goalkeeper Andriy Dikan, ruled out by injury, with Sergei Pesyakov the replacement. Captain Sergei Parshivlyuk, Brazilian midfielder Romulo, and main striker Welliton were also missing.
It was coach Unai Emery’s favoured 4-2-3-1, including a tantalisingly fluid attacking midfield band of Ari, De Zeeuw and Aiden McGeady. But what quickly emerged, aside from the roaming of (mainly) Ari and McGeady was the vulnerability on the flanks (which will be addressed later). But there were benefits to this narrowness: left-back Dmitri Kombarov was practically sole proprietor of Spartak’s left meaning Ari could drift inside as a kind of second striker, meaning to link-up with Emmanuel Emenike who was at risk of isolation.
This central over-loading at least initially maintained possessional superiority, especially with Celtic’s early typically ‘European away’ eagerness to give the ball away. Celtic meanwhile were interested in classic counter-attacking football. Defending deep with Mulgrew, Wanyama and Brown the enforcers, and breaking out at pace down the flanks. The one blemish (and indicative of Spartak’s penetrative runs) was another cheap yellow for Wanyama, losing Ari on the run and tripping him to stop the attack. It was a clear, early yellow (like Benfica), and you wonder if there may be less conspicuous ways to stop play.
The opening goal was an apt microcosm of the two strategies, with Spartak starting off in possession centrally, Celtic winning the ball in midfield, powering forward at pace on the break, and an early cross being tapped in by poacher Gary Hooper. What’s notable from Celtic’s point of view, was that Hooper wasn’t required to hold-up possession or take players on.
But the left-back Kombaraov was cruelly exposed. McGeady, nominally the right-midfielder was occupying a central area with Ari nowhere to be seen. Neither player took responsibility for Mikael Lustig’s counter down the flank, and his unchecked cross was directed in to the net expertly.
Emery picked up on the ramifications immediately, putting to an end Ari’s fairly greedy roaming and making sure somebody occupied the left-flank out of possession.
Of course, a 12th minute goal away in the Champions League is uncomfortably soon but Celtic were able to galvanise their gameplan, be more confident defending deep and taking the sting out of the match, and take less risks going forward.
Spartak weren’t exactly breaking down the door and with the two sides cancelling each other out, it seemed the most likely route to goal for the hosts would be via two age-old methods: a good old defensive blunder, or a moment of genius from an A-list attacker.
The equaliser was a combination of both. Defensively, it was a sloppy, with Samaras already looking ragged committing a lazy foul in midfield, and the resulting restart of play lazily tracked down. In fairness (particularly to Samaras who was just returning from injury), it’s an energy-sapping business defending against intelligent movers like Spartak.
It wasn’t just the midfield’s concentration slipping, as Kelvin Wilson let his man get on the end of a hopeful long pass from Kim Kallstrom. Ari provided the moment of class, expertly cushioning down the through-ball into Emenike’s path to score.
A cheap goal to give away, but probably fair with respect to which side was more pro-actively making play.
Again, without looking particularly like conceding it happened again for Celtic. Ari wasn’t closed down promptly enough, but his deflected shot was dealt with poorly by the sleeping Frazer Forster. If he couldn’t catch the ball, he should’ve put it behind. Instead Demy De Zeeuw cleverly played the ball across goal for Emenike to tap-in – the sharpest man in the box.
Such a soft turnaround was all the more frustrating considering that it was as good an away display in Europe as Celtic had produced in a long time. It appeared that that crucial vigilance required at this level had been deserted again.
The gameplan couldn’t change however. There’s always the temptation to bring on another, or a different forward, but under the circumstances, the defensive, arguably negative approach was the correct one – particularly with only 1 goal required to restore parity.
It was through this route that the game-deciding incident occurred. Just when it looked like Celtic were once again to fall victim to an unlucky (or poor) refereeing decision, Tony Chapron was eventually persuased by his supporting officials that Hooper was indeed pulled back by Juan Insaurralde, and as last man he had to be dismissed.
This had a frightening effect on Emery’s gameplan (having to withdraw De Zeeuw, for young defender Sergei Bryzgalov). His system’s raison d’etre, the fluid central interlinking of talented attackers was completely curtailed, leaving a bog-standard, flat 4-4-1.
Lennon waited 8-minutes to see the effect on play, and with the opposition choosing to protect the goal advantage by defending deep, he made the decision to go 4-4-2. James Forrest came on for Wanyama going right-midfield, Samaras moved up front and Commons went left.
Now the shoe was on the other foot, with Celtic the pro-active side and Spartak looking to counter. The difference aside from the extra man, was that Spartak were forced into such a strategy, where as Celtic came prepared.
The question remained, could Celtic break down such a tough defence in a short space of time – but again the flanks proved fruitful. Commons sent Mulgrew galloping down the left, and his excellent first-time cross was dummied by Samaras, re-distributed by Hooper, and drilled into goal by Forrest with what must’ve been his first-touch. Such a satisfying goal (again) in the context of “away Europe”, to break at speed and going through five attackers to score.
The winner had the hint of other team-defining, outstanding European moments such as Scott McDonald against AC Milan, or Chris Sutton against Juventus. Perhaps not in the immediate gravity of the situation, but more in the nature of the goal. In that a lesser team would not be capable, not have the grit to steal the winner. It was sheer determination from Samaras to get on the end of Izaguirre’s superb cross.
While luck and poor defending (on both side’s part) helped shape the scoreline, psychologically the impact was great for both sides. Spartak will feel hard done-by again, but for Celtic it’s a maturation. No longer a “nearly there” excuse, and a realisation (as opposed to against Benfica) that the quality is there to beat these mid to top-level European sides.
Lennon was unequivocal: “People underestimate Celtic. We don’t get the respect
we deserve and this performance might change a few attitudes.”
“It’s a huge step for the club psychologically, and for the players. It’s the first time we have won away in the Champions League, so we have broken our record and that is fantastic.”
And in singling out Hooper’s match-winning performance (the opening goal, the second and the red), Lennon has justified his staunch dependence. Hooper played the most matches (of outfield players) last season, and continues to top the pack. He has adapted to the lone striker role when others have appeared more appropriate, and in scoring 9 goals this season already, has warranted Lennon’s faith.