Friday, 9 November 2012

Bhoy oh Bhoy! Celtic's Barca Heroics Gives Scotland a Rare Reason to Smile

When Celtic packed their sporrans and set sail for sunny Catalonia two weeks ago, nobody in their right mind gave them a prayer against the all-conquering blaugrana beast that is FC Barcelona in their Champions League group match. Boasting a squad so talented it almost borders on cheating, this Barca team is widely regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest club side of all time. It was supposed to be a case of ‘how many’ against a side playing in a league that is about as weak as an anaemic schoolchild and about as relevant today as a Wet, Wet, Wet cassette tape.

However, instead of a brutal, bloody massacre, we were treated to as heroic an away performance as you are likely to see from a side visiting the Camp Nou. The Hoops had the audacity to take a surprise lead through former Manchester City figure of ridicule Georgios Samaras and although they were begged back by Andres Iniesta after a typically irresistible Barcelona move, they looked on course to secure an unexpected and unlikely draw. Unfortunately, they were to have their wee hearts broken by a close range Jordi Alba finish in the dying embers of the game. All the post match talk was about the Celts’ glorious failure. Brave and gallant but ultimately disappointing for them to miss out on both a vital point towards qualification for the last sixteen and a chance to leave an imprint on a rare appearance at this stage of the competition. The manner of the defeat also dealt a devastating blow to a side not expected to repeat such heroics in the return game – even with home advantage.

How little did we know.

And so to a sold out Parkhead for what was again expected to be a stroll for the four time European Champions. If they were somewhat flat in the first game, then surely normal service would resume this time around? Barcelona, with their embarrassment of riches in terms on the pitch started the game in typically flowing, fluid fashion taking the game to their opponents pushing them further and further back. It seemed like only a matter of time before the first goal would arrive. But a peculiar thing occurred. Barca couldn’t create any clear cut chances. I want to make a 'Braveheart' joke here but I'd like to think I'm better than that. Not by much, mind. The green and white wall may have been camped on the edge of their own box but they weren’t about to allow their opponents through. Even though they were up against the admittedly frightening prospect of Alexis Sanchez, Pedro and a certain Leo Messi in the Barca attack – complimented of course by Xavi, Iniesta and marauding full backs Alba and Dani Alves. Compare that all-star cast to the likes of Adam Matthews, Kelvin Wilson and Charlie Mulgrew. Players who you’d struggle to recognise if they came and sat next to you on a bus... in full Celtic kit.

Having weathered the early storm, 20 minutes in the home side found themselves in a rare and unfamiliar attacking scenario. A corner kick was sent into the box by the abovementioned Mulgrew and 21 year old Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama found himself rising above his marker to power home a header that sent the green and white half of Glasgow into frenzy. Undaunted, Barcelona immediately retook control of possession and came close to equalising as Messi hit the crossbar and a Sanchez header came back off the post. Celtic were able to hold on til half time. Barca started make something of a breakthrough in the second half. Unfortunately for them, they found England goalkeeping hopeful Fraser Forster in the Bhoys' goal in inspired form.

Not content with merely preventing the La Liga leaders from scoring, Forster decided to claim himself an assist. A huge kick launched upfield was totally misjudged by Xavi of all people and 18 year old substitute Tony Watt found himself with a clear run to goal to slot past Victor Valdes and make it 2-0 with just 5 minutes left on the clock. Cue pandemonium. Leo Messi pulled one back at the death but the damage was done. Celtic had beaten Barcelona and sent shockwaves throughout Europe. What a way to celebrate their 125th anniversary.

A word on the fantastic atmosphere in the ground. I don't want to get bogged down in 'twelfth man' clichés - I'm sure you can read about all that elsewhere - but even watching on TV you could sense that the vociferous support of the partisan crowd played it's part. The 55,000-odd home fans were duly rewarded for the relentless encouragement of their team. The sight of Rod Stewart overcome with emotion and blubbing like a teenage girl at a Justin Beiber concert almost spoilt the moment but I guess we can let him off. Just. Without naming names, fans of some of the other British sides competition would do well to take note of how important it is to back your team even when the odds are so greatly stacked against you.

Celtic Park has hosted some famous nights in the past. Beating AC Milan and Manchester United in recent years will clearly rank highly but both will struggle to compare to this. It’s not unfair to say that the gap between the hosts and their opponents on this occassion is almost cosmic. To deny that Barcelona are by far the superior football team will most likely see you sectioned but Celtic sent out a timely reminder that in football, you can take absolutely nothing for granted. If you weren’t lucky enough to see it happen, you will likely have been left speechless when you heard the result. An upset of truly monumental proportions.

Part of what makes this result so astonishing is the perilous state that Scottish football currently finds itself in. For a number of years the domestic league has been in steady decline and become something of a laughing stock given that there were only two teams with the resources to compete for the title. Especially given that every half decent player in the country eventually found themselves playing for one of the Glasgow giants as soon as they showed any sign of promise. Naturally, this led to growing indifference from fans of other clubs. Attendances have dropped dramatically meaning no broadcaster is particularly prepared to pay any significant money to televise matches. Consequently, all the talent, if not heading to Glasgow, is leaving the country. The fact that the best Scottish managers currently ply their trade south of the border is a damning indictment.

The exodus is not just restricted to personnel. The league lost further credibility with the continued desperate clamour of Rangers and Celtic to join the English Premier League. As people rightly laughed off such a suggestion, there then came whispers of the big two trying to get involved in some sort of pan-European League which again served to highlight the need to escape the continuing drudgery of the lack of competition they faced at home.

Naturally, with very little coming in, clubs have taken quite the financial hit. None moreso than Rangers themselves who, after years of financial mismanagement, found themselves in crippling debt, administration and finally, liquidation this past summer. Much wrangling saw a 'new club' formed under the same identity but as a result of sanctions imposed, this season kicked off with the ludicrous scenario where the team who lifted the Scottish title for the 54th time just one year earlier were playing in the THIRD division against the likes of East Stirlingshire, Annan Athletic and Elgin. How they would have looked upon their neighbours' feat with great envy this week, remembering that it has barely been two years since they were the ones rubbing shoulders with Europe's elite.

Money troubles haven't been restricted to the blue half of Glasgow. Over in the capital, they're also feeling the pinch. Hearts, under the rule of controversial owner Lithuanian-based banker Vladimir Romanov, have spent recent years harbouring not entirely unrealistic aspirations of breaking up the Old Firm duopoly. Alas, no league titles have been forthcoming. The Jambos have instead found themselves emulating Rangers in a rather unwanted way. Just hours before Celtic's heroics this week, the Edinburgh club, facing the threat of administration, issued a statement pleading with supporters to stick their hands in their pockets to help save the club having been issued with a winding up order over an unpaid tax bill:

"Without the support of fans there is, as we issue this note, a real risk that Heart of Midlothian Football Club could possibly play its last game next Saturday, 17 November against St Mirren.

This isn't a bluff, this isn't scaremongering, this is reality.

...we could be entering the final days of the club's existence."

Dramatic, desperate and ominous to say the very least. To bastardise the words of Oscar Wilde, for the Scottish Premier League to lose one club may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.

The problems are not just exclusive to clubs. The news of Hearts' impending demise came just two days after the announcement from the SFA that Craig Levein had been sacked as manager of the Scottish national team. Recent years have seen the fortunes of the game at International level almost mirror the domestic plight. Levein's tenure left the Tarten Army with precious little to get excited about. The current qualifying campaign sees The Scots propping up their group with just two points from their opening four matches. Even putting results to one side, the performances and approach to matches painted a rather grim picture. Levein's legacy will forever be the now infamous ultra-defensive 4-6-0 formation deployed in Prague two years ago. One of the ironies of Celtic beating a Barcelona side that is universally lauded for their vibrant, attacking, fluid collective passing game is that the early origins of this style of play was said to have been introduced in Glasgow by Queen's Park back when football was in it's infancy. Times certainly have changed rather dramatically.

Levein's replacement, whoever he may be, has an unenviable task on his hands.

Curiously, there are no shortage of decent Scottish managers around. Least of all a certain Sir Alex Ferguson. Beyond the impossibly unlikly chance of him taking the job, Paul Lambert worked wonders at Norwich for three years before defecting to Aston Villa this summer while Steve Clarke is currently flying high at West Brom. Either of these would be excellent choices but again, the likelihood of them wanting the job right now would be extremely slim. Gordon Strachan is currently the bookies favourite.

For the most part, Scottish football currently finds itself in the doldrums. Celtic's victory this week is very rare positive passage what is currently otherwise a very miserable chapter in the history of the game north of the border. If you tell younger or more casual football fans that Celtic were the first British team to famously win the competition they'd be forgiven for thinking you were hallucinating after too much Irn Bru. When Jock Stein's 'Lisbon Lions' triumphed over Helenio Herrera's great Inter side in 1967 it was undoubtedly considered the greatest day in the history of the club. People are speaking of this Barcelona win as the second best and it has since has become something the whole country can theoretically latch on to. This speaks volumes of how much Scottish football as whole is in need of a lift.

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