While our domestic form is about as stable as the International Outdoor Matchstick House Building Competition in a tornado, in Europe we still look like one of the teams to beat. Okay, we were beaten by Arsenal at Highbury so perhaps the Gooners won’t see it that way, but despite that little setback, we have still beaten AC Milan on our way to sitting pretty at the bottom of our Second Phase Group — but level on points with everyone else. Two games in, and the teams can’t be separated. It’s all to play for.
And after a breezy 29-hour drive in windowless Chugger and with the temperature having plummeted almost 20 degrees since we set off, we finally arrive in the promised land. The city where nights out never end, and the only country I’ve ever called home: Glasgow.
There is some good news sprouting from my inbox manure. Young Diego, my slanderer in the public press, has decided he’s over it now and is happy to return to the side. While I’m tempted to lash him to a log and push him out to sea, he is still technically my best attacking midfielder other than maybe Mark Kerr, and considering the awful run we’re just emerging from, I could use all the help I can get. As such, I decide to retain my 4–1–3–2 but give him a bit more attacking freedom, pushing out wide on the right in the hope that it’ll allow Luque to stay in the box and score a few more goals; I’ve noticed recently that the Spaniard likes to drift into channels, which is fine if he sets up Skalidis to score, but he regularly doesn’t — so having him in front of goal might work better.
Elsewhere, the aforementioned Skalidis and Luque both obviously start up front since Paiva and Tsigalko have proven that they can’t be trusted nearly as much, Kerr and Petrov join Diego in midfield with Kibebe behind them, Kalogeras, Duff and Voulgaris are automatic choices, while the War God Tobros and Mauro “The Mincer” Bonomi will be tasked with keeping out two of the world’s most overpowered strikers: John Hartson and Chris Sutton. Seriously. I can understand why some young, potential-packed players ended up being better here than they were in real life, but in 2001, it should have been quite clear that these two shouldn’t be beefed up enough to score a goal per game for five straight seasons.
That is, however, what we’re facing today — along with a centre-half pairing of John Terry and John Curtis, Gennaro Gattuso in midfield, and arch-creator Mads Jørgensen behind the front two. It’s a daunting task.
Ten minutes are on the clock by the time Sutton manages his first spectacular volley on goal that Voulgaris does tremendously to turn over the bar, then a Bonomi block-tackle on Joos Valgaeren both clears the danger and releases a shockwave that rattles the pint glasses of Glaswegians for miles. From that tackle, Kerr advances forward with the ball, supported by Petrov, and flicks the ball into the path of Skalidis — Skalidis shoots! Magnus Hedman blocks, but Skalidis is there for the follow up!! HEDMAN SAVES AGAIN!! Well, he’s got a reputation for being an absolute wall, and we’re feeling it already. Great double-save from the Celtic stopper.
It’s still a corner. Kalogeras puts it down, runs up, curls it into the box… DIEGO RISES!!
HNNNNNNGGGGGGGGGOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL COLADEROS! Diego charges straight to our bench and leaps into my arms! All is forgiven, my boy! In fact, I think I love you! It’s 1–0 Coladeros!!
Our defence is put under enormous pressure in the following few minutes as the startled Hoops punch themselves off the ropes. Sporting John Curtis and John Terry at the back means there are no easy ways into the Celtic box, and in fact, it’s a Curtis long ball that sets up the hosts for their inevitable equaliser. He pumps forward, Ivo Rossen reaches it, and centres the ball for Chris Sutton to launch himself into the air and pump a header past Voulgaris for 1–1.
It’s a disappointing but not entirely unexpected goal, but I can’t fault my players, who respond to the setback by lighting several fires inside Celtic’s third of the pitch and making camp for the remainder of the first half. Mark Kerr is actually their main tormentor, testing Hedman twice with raking long-range drives and striking another that clangs back off the post with the big Swede rooted to the spot (thanks). Skalidis also forces Hedman into another fine save before the break, but in the end, we all return to the dressing room with the scores tied at ones.
When the second half starts, Stan Petrov takes it upon himself to run over to John Curtis and boot him right in the shins for absolutely no reason. I hold my head in my hands and wonder why I ever moved to Spain in the first place, expecting to see the flourish of the referee’s red, but instead he chooses only to book the Bulgarian for his misdemeanour. He reacts by getting straight into Celtic territory and smashing a half-volley against the crossbar, perhaps with greater urgency now that he’s just one more pointless act of aggression away from an early shower.
It does, however, kickstart another period of silver and blue dominance. Kalogeras rains corners and free kicks down on the Hoops’ penalty area, Mark Kerr gets above Gattuso and heads down but Hedman gathers at the feet of Luque, before our Spanish internatioanl striker meets a Duff cross with a stunning diving header that just goes wide of the mark. It has to be said that we’re looking the stronger team at this stage, but with Diego now playing so poorly he’s stuck on a 6 despite scoring a goal, I move to make some changes. Iniesta comes on for the slanderer, while Ronaldo enters the field for the tiring and psychotic Petrov.
The match’s most crucial moment comes next. Celtic swap John Curtis for Ulrik Laursen, and seconds later, Joos Valgaeren is stretchered off after some kind of coming together with Skalidis and the improvised shank I slipped him at half time. Suddenly, Celtic’s rock-hard back three is now looking a lot more flaccid — and with ten minutes to go, we finally strike.
Voulgaris parries a Hartson header out for a corner then claims the dead ball, launching it forward into an instant counter-attack. Duff finds Ronaldo, who lifts it forward to Skalidis — he’s beyond the defence, but has been forced wide. Anas cuts inside, Kerr comes to meet him, they play a delightful one-two! Kerr’s return pass takes out the entire Celtic back four! It’s Skalidis vs Hedman! SKALIDIS SHOOTS!!
GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL!
Hartson and Sutton do their best to ruin our day in the closing stages, but Voulgaris puts two fingers up at them every time they manage a shot on his goal, and after a tense and edgy encounter, your Wet Bandits are scampering away with all three points.
Fabulous performance from most of my players, and the result to match. I’m particularly happy with my defenders, especially Tobros and Bonomi. They have formed a seriously formidable partnership since I first paired them a month or so ago. Anyone else already forgotten about Burdisso? I sure have.
A trip to the Balearics is the filling in our Celtic sandwich as we’re forced to play Mallorca at their place. I comprehensively rotate, and away we go.
It takes me 80 minutes to realise I should have put Tsigalko up front by himself with Eldar in behind, and once I do that, the two combine to set up Lizarazu for a tap in and we win 1–0. Otherwise, we are dreadful and Mallorca really should beat us. It’s about time we were on the other side of this sort of game.
We return to normally beautiful, picturesque Seville, which now buzzes with large groups of loud, proud, sunburnt afternoon drunks. It can mean only one thing: Celtic are in town for our return Champions League game, and they’ve brought their songs, their humour, and their penchant for chucking empty beer cans in the river with them. I miss Scotland.
We return to pretty much full strength for this one, only with a single small change. Diego has returned from Mallorca extremely tired, which leaves a spot in my midfield open for someone to grab. After sleeping that night and dreaming about another time and another world, where Eldar played on the right of my midfield three and was one of my best players, I decide he’s the man to grab the bull by the horn. Sorry Yaya, sorry Andrés — I just think he’s got a bit more of a goal threat. Plus Iniesta isn’t fit either, so there’s that. Ronaldo is sort of snarling at me from the bench, but hey — what have you done for me lately? You’re damn right, nothing.
John Terry plants a header on target in the third minute that Voulgaris does well to turn over the bar and I’m sweating so much that Susan is on the phone to a local hospital, but thankfully, it’s the only time Celtic warm the gloves of Greek Tony in the whole first half.
The rest of it belongs to your Wet Bandits. Bonomi heads goalwards from a Kalogeras corner but is denied a second goal of the season by an impossible Hedman stop from three inches — honestly, how Bonomi and Tobros only have three goals between them this season is beyond me. They seem to win every single header we get from corners but hardly ever manage to score. It must be all the goalkeepers we come up against, you know — the ones who play football part-time in between flying faster than speeding bullets and leaping tall buildings in a single bound.
Tobros then ruins my point by planting a header into row M before Petrov fires wide and Kerr sees a low drive saved by Hedman. Raúl García pulls his party trick out of the bag on the stroke of half time: completely ignoring my instructions to take over free kick duties and smash one into the car park, and with that, the half time whistle sounds and the game is stuck at zeroes.
I’d like to say the second half is a walkover, but it’s annoyingly not at all. The hour mark arrives with no notable action, then both Skalidis and Luque find themselves on the end of chances they “can’t miss”, but what’s that in the sky? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Hed-Man, leaping through the air at the speed of sound, sonic booming both headers out for corners and by this time, I’m fighting off two men who are trying to put me in some sort of white onesie and load me into the back of a waiting ambulance. At least, I think I am.
With my sanity long gone I scream at my players to just f — king score so we can start cleaning up the city, and with that, Stan Petrov beats Brett Emerton and whips a ball into the box that Anas Skalidis, at long, long last, nods past Hedman — who we have to assume allowed it to go in — for a 1–0 lead we’ve deserved for about 68 of these 70 minutes.
With García, Eldar and Kerr doing absolutely nothing to aid our cause, I throw on Kibebe, Davies and sulky Ronaldo for the last 20 — and wouldn’t you just believe it, my decision to upset him by leaving him on the bench works a treat, as he pops up in the 87th minute to volley home a Davies centre and finally, finally, secure the three points. He runs over to me and does his jumpy-around arms-out celebration right in my face, I clap meekly and hope none of the telly cameras are filming, and the referee’s final whistle goes — thank god for that.
Celtic have been tamed, we’re top of our Champions League group, and only a disastrous collapse against both Arsenal and Milan would see us fail to progress to the knockout stages for the first time in our history. Can we manage it, Ultras? All I know is my gut says maybe.
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