Spartak Moscow 2 – 3 Celtic: Seminal away win may be Lennon-era milestone

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 lineup

Celtic’s predominant formation (4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1) although there was a hefty mid-match spell using 4-1-4-1

With 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 Lineup

A slant on Unai Emery’s long-term favoured 4-2-3-1 (fluid midfield distorting shape effectively into 4-3-3)

Spartak 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.

Opening goal

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.

Spartak’s return

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.

Second half

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.

Triumphant turnaround

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.



About tictacticuk

Football fan and commentator of all things Celtic FC.
This entry was posted in 2012/13, Europe and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to Spartak Moscow 2 – 3 Celtic: Seminal away win may be Lennon-era milestone

  1. Major Clusterfunk says:

    Brilliant stuff again. Very much enjoyed that.

  2. James says:

    I can’t help feeling that Forster is being criticised too much for his part in the second Spartak goal, both here and on Sky yesterday. Surely the first priority of a keeper when dealing with the sort of shot Ari put in is, if you can’t catch it, push it as far wide as possible, which he did – quite often the main error in this situation is that a goalkeeper manages to parry it into the centre of the box setting up a simple tap-in. It wasn’t Forster fault that no-one (Lustig?) was picking up De Zeeuw.

    Overall though, a superb and mostly intelligent performance.

    • tictacticuk says:

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, it’s one of those borderline ones that it’s difficult to pin the blame exactly. What doesn’t help Forster is that he seemed to have enough time to readjust his position to make a safer attempt, but he got down verrrrry slow. The parry also could’ve been better. The defenders weren’t exactly shrowded in glory, as you point out, but Forster certainly a lot to blame. I think Lennon’s reaction suggested that too.

      • Steveo says:

        Nobody seems to have picked up on this (& I do think FF could have palmed it away for a corner but in saying that he has been outstanding for us this past year or so so I’ll cut him some slack) anyway getting back to my original point I think the Spartak attacker at the second goal (De Zeeuw, who cuts the ball across goal) was actually offside when the ball was struck at FF. If so linos flag should have been up straight away as soon as he goes for the rebound. I’ve only seen it replayed once so could be wrong but looks a close shout. Anyway we won at long long last!!!

  3. Kev says:

    the pregame was hilarious, seeing skysports try to discern the formation from the starting 11

    couldve been a 3-5-2!!!

    anyways some notes:
    -ambrose isnt cut out for europe, and wilson perhaps as well
    -mulgrew rogne might be our strongest defensive partnership
    -lennon is advancing tactically, which is encouraging
    -we REALLY miss Ki, and we should look at a replacement in Jan
    -lustig is awesome, and hooper is fine as a lone striker if we keep it on the deck
    -forrest likes a game where we dominate rather than more defensive
    -brown is excellent in the hole when we defend and counter where he can run to his hearts content

    • gerry says:

      I think you’re being a bit harsh on ambrose there, kev. He done ok for someone making his european debut for celtic. However, I do wish lennon would settle on a first choice central defensive partnership, whoever the two players may be. Just pick them and stick with it

      Have to agree that brown was immense in his attacking midfielder role. And its interesting to note that some of our best results in europe, such as against milan at parkhead and dinamo moscow, have came when brown’s played in an advanced central role

    • tictacticuk says:

      I don’t envy whoever has to guess the formation from the lineup for TV (or if they’re informed anything by Celtic) but yeah, I think the educated guess from here on in with any Euro tie is 4-4-1-1.

      – harsh on Ambrose? Lennon singled him out as doing well
      – still agree, but again Ambrose/Wilson were fine
      – yes!
      – YES!
      – Agree
      – agree. I find Forrest really quite poor at tracking back. Heads back at about 40% intensity of heading forward.
      – agree.

    • Paul D, falkirk says:


      We don’t miss Ki – a player who never tracked back, couldn’t tackle and had the turning circle of an artic. Sure he was a good passer if given all day. Swansea will soon realise his many limitations – great business for us.
      Great result last night – this squad is maturing nicely

  4. desso says:

    Wonderful,insightful post,thank you…

  5. paranoidandroid says:

    I enjoyed reading your tactical anaysis and summary of the game as usual. Obviously, I’ve got no complaints about the performance last night. But I wondered, however, if you thought our dodgy 10-15 minutes at the start might be down to us changing formation all the time? Do you think it would maybe help if we tried playing roughly the same way every week, whether it’s in Moscow, Barcelona, or Perth.

    • tictacticuk says:

      Have to say that this is a fair point. In fairness, the main difficulty was that Mulgrew was in the centre. Elsewhere it was business as usual, and for me, more to do with the environment, the pressure, and possibly not having a reliable outball higher up the park?

    • ruggygman says:

      Sorry, dont want to sound harsh…. but the very essence of playing football on all fronts, scottish and european, suggests a need to adapt, and play different formations…. the brand and level of football is different, and in scotland we can comfortably go with standard 4,4,2, playing a strike partner up alongside Hooper…. where-as in Europe, as with old firm games in days gone by, the games are one and lost in mid-field…. hence the need for 5 midfielders…… i like brown in the advanced “hole” behind Hooper…… it allows us to truly defend from the front…. in spl, commons is the answer in the hole, as he isnt as effective in defending from the front, but more creative…….. brown and wanyama together as a midfield pair are too strong for majority of spl midfields

  6. Eddie Hart says:

    Kev, i think you are being a bit harsh on Ambrose and Wilson, i wouldnt say they did much wrong, to my mind the first goal came from Sammy giving away possession then a foul, it being taken very quickly when the whole team was switched off, the ball went down the wing and Emilio was posted missing and the ball was sent in to a place our centres you so readily blame were always going to struggle. it was down to the quality of the cross that Emilio let in. the second goal you have to either blame forster for not putting it out or Lustig for not covering the back post again id say the centres could do nothing. but on the whole the team played very well but for those two mistakes.

    I agree with what you say about young James, but he is still a kid and has a LONG way to go before hes the finished article and we need to stop expecting him to win us games, he dosent handle the pressure very well and can disappear in the big games.

    i didnt think we missed Ki at all lastnight or in any other game, Brown, Wanyama and Commons have been fantastic, i really doubt Ki would get a game if he was still with us. if anything id say we miss Kayal more but again these are just my opinions.

    at the end of the day in Lenny we trust and hes doing us proud, hes showing just how clever and astute he is. He knows his players better than anyone and hes doing a great job.

    Hail Hail

    • tictacticuk says:

      Agree with most of what you’ve said but lay off Ki 😛

      I think here and particularly Benfica, even if not starting he would’ve had a huge role to play in a 4-5-1 type formation. Think Udinese, charging forward and smacking the bar. His excellent and composed ball retention.

      Not saying anyone else who played would *definitely* make way (I mean, we won!) but on paper I’d rather Ki in the side for Europe than out.

    • Chris says:

      Spot on, Ki hardly got a game when he was with us never mind playing him in a tough game away in russia against a strong physical team. Kayal in my opinion is our best player when he is fit. He proved that when he arrived and also in performances after that. Ki would be lucky to make my bench these days. The fact we got near enough 6 million for him baffles me.

  7. jquinn67 says:

    What was your take on the winning goal? Interesting to see a free kick from so far out which was obviously off the training ground… must have been very pleasing for the coaching staff.

    Would be interesting to see that formation again with Ambrose and Mulgrew swapped positions… reckon that might work even better.

    • tictacticuk says:

      Have to admit I was in the pub watching this one due to circumstances, so my detail of the winner is understandably shady, ha. From what I recall, Izaguirre was working well to eke out space on that side, but can’t attribute it to a set-piece move. Probably wrong though.

      I also before the match considered Ambrose and Wanyama as the shield in midfield. Very interesting, brutal even, although I’m wondering if Ambrose is developing into *strictly* a centre-back.

    • ruggygman says:

      Interesting comment….. I believe that Wilson is a stronger centre half playing on the right hand side of the 2….. i notice when Ambrose plays, Wilson suffers in being put onto the left hand side, his un-natural side…… so, to have Mulgrew as the left centre back, and wilson as right centre back, could be a potential solution……. then, as for the 2 central midfielders….. could be wanyama + kayal, wanyama + ledley, wanyama + brown, wanyama + ambrose…….. our options are vast….. I think for Benfica away from home, you can go with some certainties…. In Europe away, Hooper will always be the lone striker… Samaras will always play wide left, and Brown will always be part of the central midfield….. thats the 3 guarantee’s (providing no injuries)……. and with a lone striker, the other guarantee is the midfield will comprise of 5 players…… whether as 2 deep with 3 in front, or a rigid 4 across with 1 in front…..

  8. paul mcmullan says:

    I think vic’s booking was harsh, the replay showed he tripped himself, albeit Wanyama probably encouraged him. Mulgrews was highly contentious as well. Nothing foul, if it was for kicking the ball away, it was an obvious attempt at a cross. If it leads to a later suspension i.e. against Spartak at home, it could prove costly.

    • tictacticuk says:

      I agree that Mulgrew’s was a bit nonsensical. But Vic I feel had enough control of his body that the clip on Ari was intentional. I’ve tried to master that playing football myself – it’s a fine art!

      I might be completely wrong but the fact that Wanyama was “done” in similar circumstance to Benfica last time round, pointed to my conclusion…

  9. Big D says:

    Fantastic result – no doubt about it.

    Having said that, I still think we’ve got a fair bit to go yet before starting to get confident about beating mid to top-level European teams. We withstood a hell of a lot of pressure throughout that match, and at the risk of sounding negative, I thought Spartak were unfortunate not to score more (I’m glad they didn’t though!!!!!). I’m not overly convinced by any centre-back combination at this point. The players doing the job are good – don’t get me wrong, great for the SPL – but to take on and consistently master mid to top-level European teams, I’m not yet convinced. There were times throughout the match last night – and against Benefica – where we scrambled so well. I fear though that this (scrambling defence) is more good luck, rather than good football. And it can’t last forever.

    I’m really sorry for sounding so negative on this one (and believe me, it pains me to type all this), but I think a lot of people are getting too far ahead of themselves at this stage.

    One really pleasing aspect is our centre midfielders can do a great result shielding our defence. Last night – for me at least – it was our midfield that won it. ‘Industrious’ is the only way I can think of describing them.

    All up though, last night was absolutely brilliant, and really encouraging. I really hope the team can learn from this, and kick on a few gears. I’m convinced that we only really need a quality centre back and our standard of play will increase enormously. Someone there to really organise, calm things down, take a touch, and let the more technical players just do their thing.

    We’ll get there. For me, it’s just a matter of time.

    Keep up the good work with the site. It’s brilliant.

    • John haggart says:

      I wonder what chances you elude to when saying they could have scored more because I thought we restricted them to very few?

      Also you tag of industrious for the midfield three is very harsh Mulgrew played some excellent forward passed and was involved in both the pass for the red card and the cross for the winner, Wanyama also had a pass completion rate of 81% which is more than a little better than industrious.

      I agree with the assessment of Wilson but think its too early to judge Ambrose either way but from what we’ve seen has been way better than SPL level only.

      I think your overall assessment is very negative based on the game I watched.

      Yes we were wasteful with the ball at times and the CB’s got caught by one long ball but other than 5 minutes either side of the half we contained a very good side playing on their own patch very well indeed.

  10. michael says:

    I’d suggest that Ambrose and Wilson, if they are both available, will remain the first choice pairing for the ECL games. Both players have decent recovery pace and will no doubt improve their understanding; note that this was their second game together and Ambrose’s third start for the club, having never played at a higher club compeition than the Israeli Football League (IFL). Ambrose had a pass completion of 77%, only second to Wanyama’s 81%. Clearly hs has fantastic potential, given that he’s composed on the ball, is blessed with good technique and he’s relatively young (23). Indeed, a consequence of the introduction of Ambrose will be that Mulgrew will play a candidate to play more games in central and left midfield, depending on the formation selected, and will probably be in ahead of Kayal though possibly not Ledley in the ECL games IMHO.

  11. John haggart says:

    You assessment is spot on in my opinion. Especially that of Brown and his role for the night. I thought splitting brown and Wanyama up and pushing him forward to do his harassing in the hole and of their back line was an absolute masterstroke by Lennon and Brown executed it superbly. Another top top performance from the captain.

  12. Moctical says:

    Great summary as always and a well-deserved win for the Bhoys. Spartak had the majority of possession but our use of it was much much more effective. The possession stats, though, I’m sure are in some part due to a blatant homer ref who gave us little including the bizarre Mulgrew booking, Commons’ stonewall penalty, the Hooper penalty call later on and endless innocuous free kicks in the first half. Our midfield dominated their’s physically and they were clearly intimidated by this at times and our ball-winning in advanced areas was critical to the win. Almost every time Celtic had the ball going forward they looked like creating chances. Spartak flattered to deceive on the ball, the brilliant first goal excepted (surely harsh to over-criticize the defence for losing such a perfectly executed move?), and mainly forced a few corners that they failed to do much with.

    Also one for any rulebook geeks lurking here – De Zeeuw was in an offside position when Ari struck the ball. Should this have been given or do either Wilson’s deflection or Forster’s save bring him back onside? I’m done keeping up with the rule changes 🙂

    • Steveo says:

      Posted the same further up – if he is in an offside position when the ball is kicked he’s offside – a deflection or save makes no difference – lino shud have been looking for that. As a qualified lino masel thats a basic error!!

      • bhoyjames says:

        Its all about opinions : hooper was outstanding and lustig is showing what he is really worth good footballer after his injury ..we have come along way neil got the tatics spot one ..we attacked with pace and killer instinct .. wanyama did well for pass to lustig to set the run and excellent cross for hoops to score ..shortly after we should got peno commons trip ..seen replay ..def peno ..we defended well ..even with mulgrew playin midfield ..victor had an off day …goal before half time wilson caught out ..but so was effe ..both there men got to the ball before them and goal came out of it …second disaster ff should done better it was actually going wide ..and who got on the end of it and who was two yards behind effe …now this guy is good player and i have no doubt he will turn into fine player and excellent centre half ..he played two games previous in midf ..maybe they should put mulgrew back there and effe in midf ..but lenny was thinking the power and pace of sparta striker can see why effe played there ..we fought hard haf chances ..victor was out sorts in middle ..only time before james came in ..good lad ..lads he is young ..won lots of games for us ..huge player for celtic get a player of his stats ..dont think we could afford to pay a club for replacement for forrest anytime soon sammi big akward clown most time but is big player for us too ..pace and power thats why we love him …prob ones my best nights as celtic fans since o neils times …we are on the upgrade ..the ki factor fine footballer ..hard to say prob wouldn make the team but europe he would be excellent for us ..but we have players here that will do better ledley and victor …6 million he is a steal for swansea ..any watch him play for them yet ki looked very good ..

      • John haggart says:

        How can people say victor had a bad game, that completely baffles me? Best pass completion in the entire team 81% and broke up everything Brown didn’t I thought he was one of the many shining lights. Watched a different game to me.

  13. Thomas says:

    Great article, agree with most of the points.

    In my opinion, Lustig’s motoring down the flank was absolutely pivotal to our performance. I’d say that was comfortably his best game for us; a really solid performance both defensively and going forward.

    Another point about the first goal, Wanyama once again physically dominant in the middle and following it up with first class distribution. Also, the finish was exquisite from Hooper. To take a ball like that and effectively score with your stride was masterful.

    Shout out to Emilio Izaguirre to who looked more like the player of 2010/11. Great positioning and that cross was a belter.

    Wonderful from Celtic, it was finally our time.

  14. Danny says:

    “James Forrest came on for Wanyama going right-midfield, Samaras moved up front and Commons went left.”

    According to UEFA, from 75-90 minutes, Samaras played deeper and further left on average than Commons. Are the UEFA graphics not reliable or is it just a matter of interpretation? (Or Samaras drifting wide?)

    Click to access 2009517_tl.pdf

  15. Our transition play was superb and though we had meager possession we were clinical when we had it. Sometimes a sum of parts are better than the individuals faced. Sometimes tactics work and you get the luck. Unlike many other times on the road all came together to get a result against a higher ranking team to produce a surprising but delightful result.

    I’m unsure why some are all hand wringing about Wilson and Ambrose. We attract a certain level of CB. A level of CB that will make mistakes, look uncomfortable at times and maybe struggle at times. Wilson was superb against Benfice and showed inexperience the other night, which I would fully expect in a player playing his first champions league away game. Ambrose also can be viewed under the same reasoning.

    We all spoke about the great ball for Hooper on Saturday why can’t the first Spartak just be viewed the same way? A fantastic ball.

    Lets look at the FACT that Double F had a quiet night – quieter than against Helinsborg away when Rogne and Mulgrew got ripped a few times – and though sometime Efe and Kelvin had to recover they did (see the last min for example).

    No CB is infallable. Look at Barca. Best team in the world but couldn’t defend a cake table at a weightwatchers meeting.

    For the first time though in a long time, I see we have two cb’s with attributes to be a decent pairing. They have failings but they could be the best we can get.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s