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Riding on team spirit

Rob Hughes, Dec 9, 2012, International Herald Tribune :
TOUGH GUYS: Against all odds, a spirited Celtic sealed their place among the elite 16 in Europe’s top-club competition. REUTERS

Scottish champs Celtic have shown the way forward for wealthy clubs like Chelsea, Manchester City .

The triumph of Celtic and the elimination of Chelsea on the final night of Champions League group games showed that there is more than wealth – and even more than individual ability – to staying in the toughest competition on earth.

The quality that rings out from Celtic Park in Glasgow is spirit.
The team, the management and the crowd wanted this victory so much that Moscow Spartak, at times visibly the more talented side, caved in to them Tuesday.
Celtic’s 2-1 victory – the Scottish champion beat Barcelona by the same score in November – was secured by a penalty kick.


But even that, from Kris Commons, took an immeasurable amount of pluck to convert in a cauldron where 60,000 partisan Glaswegians held their breath in fearful silence.
Chelsea’s 6-1 thrashing of the Danish minnow Nordsjaelland in London was futile because, far, far away in Donetsk, where few visiting sides prevail, Juventus beat the home team Shakhtar, 1-0.

The Ukraine club, with all its Brazilian stars, already had the points needed to reach the knockout rounds next February, and it had looked to be the most accomplished team in its group. So why did Chelsea, Europe’s champion just seven months ago, lose out in the first stage of the tournament this season? Simple: It lacked cohesion, from the owner down to the defense on the field.

It lacked that all-for-one spirit that put Celtic through against the odds, and that same attitude pulled Juventus through not just on Tuesday in Donetsk, but on Chelsea’s ground, way back in September.

“We scored six goals tonight,” said Chelsea’s goalie and temporary captain, Petr Cech, on Wednesday, “but it didn’t go our way in Ukraine. This wasn’t where we lost it. The main difference was when we were two up against Juventus at home, and finished 2-2.”

That, and the subsequent 3-0 defeat in Turin, prompted the owner Roman Abramovich to fire the coach, Roberto Di Matteo, who had been his champion at the end of last season. In Cech’s time as goalie, he has seen coaches discarded as regularly as paper cups. “We are all in the same boat,” he said wearily on Tuesday night. “You can change the manager, but players are also responsible.”

His point was being made in Donetsk, where Juventus – which was theoretically without a coach the first few months of the season while Antonio Conte was banned from the touchline for not reporting match-fixing while managing Siena – nevertheless maintained his credo of unity.

Juve was the better team, the most committed, throughout the night in Ukraine. Its goal was nothing to write home about. It even was mocked by Stephan Lichtsteiner, whose cross created it. When Lichtsteiner fired the ball in low and hard, two opponents reached for it.

Shakhtar defender Olexandr Kucher got there a fraction sooner than Juventus’s Sebastian Giovinco for an own goal. But, as strikers do, the little Italian tried to claim the touch and the goal.

“My celebration with the Pinocchio gesture was because Giovinco said he scored,” Lichtsteiner joked after the game. “I clearly saw Kucher’s deflection.” After that, Lichtsteiner, the honest Swiss of Juventus, said he hopes to play Celtic, and he will find out soon, when the knockout round is decided five days before Christmas.

There goes another player, suggesting that the Celts are the weakest of the 16 teams left in the 2012-13 tournament. Should it happen that the Italian and Scottish champions are drawn together from the pot, then maybe Lichtsteiner will study the form and not the perception of Celtic’s progress thus far.

To come through a group that contained Barcelona, Benfica and Moscow Spartak is no performance of an underdog. Celtic’s team may be largely young and relatively unrecognized abroad, yet they fought and somehow overcame Lionel Messi and company in Glasgow – after darn near holding them in the away game.

There were times when Celtic also looked second-best to Spartak in skills. But they defeated the Moscow team at home and away. And in Glasgow, with their supporters breathing defiance into them, these Celts are warriors.

Once again on Tuesday, their perseverance made their good fortune. Both the Scottish team’s goals were tinged with luck, while the Spartak goal in between them was made by the muscular strength of the Nigerian Emmanuel Emenike and finished off with the flair of Ari, a Brazilian in Moscow.

Celtic first went a goal up when Gary Hooper, seizing upon a miscued clearance from Juan Insaurralde, scored with an emphatic, low shot off his right foot.

The winner came down to another form of art. Georgios Samaras, Celtic’s Greek captain, had the ball at his feet, but was going nowhere with his back to the goal. He enticed Marek Suchy to come closer and closer to him, and then convinced the German referee Felix Brych that Suchy had tripped him.

It was a debatable call, persuaded by Samaras’ dramatic fall. But, with Celtic’s regular penalty takers missing their kicks of late, the pressure to take this one was handed to Commons.

The stadium fell silent. Neil Lennon, the Celtic team manager, sat crouched and huddled with his coat over his face, unable to watch. Commons, English born but Scottish by dint of a grandmother from Dundee, was ice-cold.

He watched the goalie, waited for a fraction of a second for Sergei Pesyakov to make a move to the left, and hammered the ball right down the middle. It hit the underside of the bar with tremendous force, bounced down and over the line, and Celtic had won.

“It means a hell of a lot to this club,” said Lennon. “Its a monumental effort for Celtic to be in the last 16 going into the New Year.”

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