Champions League: Celtic's night to remember; Chelsea's good fortune
An incredible night of Champions League action saw Barcelona beaten, Bayern Munich break records and champion Chelsea need a last-minute goal to go top of Group E. The total of 35 goals scored on the night is the highest in over four years: there were two hat tricks, a missed penalty, a floodlight failure and only one more team, Manchester United, confirmed its place into the Round of 16.
In his first season as a Champions League coach, Lennon has written his name in Celtic folklore. The club had already won its first away game in 21 attempts, at Spartak Moscow, on Matchday Two; it took the lead in Barcelona only to lose in the last minute on Matchday Three. But this was the pinnacle: once again, Barcelona showed its weakness in the air as Victor Wanyama, outstanding throughout, headed home a corner for a first-half lead in the 21st minute.
From then on, Celtic defended for its lives: English goalkeeper Fraser Forster was outstanding, while its defenders threw themselves in the way of shots (Barcelona's shots stats will be lower than usual because so many were blocked). When Xavi uncharacteristically gave the ball away, teenage striker Tony Watt leapt on it and put Celtic two goals ahead in the 83rd. It was to prove crucial: Lionel Messi's late consolation ensured jangling nerves to the end (and stopped talk of a two-game goal drought, really, since his baby son was born last week).
"This is one of greatest nights of my career," Lennon said. "It's a very special occasion, we've just beaten best team in the world. But we don't want to stop now: I think there¹s more to come from this team."
Short of Celtic's European Cup final victory in 1967 over Inter Milan in Lisbon, it's hard to think of a better result for Celtic in its European history. The fact that it came so close in Camp Nou a fortnight ago shows that it was no fluke.
There is a wider significance, too. It's all very well beating a team like Barcelona -- and bear in mind that Real Madrid is the only other side to have done that this season -- but it would mean much less without them qualifying from Group G. Celtic is now three points clear of third-place Benfica and has every chance of reaching the next round. It certainly deserves to, especially when you consider that it was missing captain Scott Brown and top scorer Gary Hooper, both out injured. The 1967 side was called the Lisbon Lions. The Lennon Lions have just written a new chapter in the club's history.
Not because Chelsea is unbeatable with the Italian in charge (far from it), nor because it is playing the most exciting football of the Abramovich era, which comes at a price: defensive anarchy. No, the reason is because Di Matteo has to be one of the luckiest generals this club has ever had on its bench after a 3-2 stunner.
Shakhtar could have been out of sight after a first half which it dominated, and yet Chelsea went into the break 2-1 up after two howlers from goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov -- the first a clearance which deflected off Fernando Torres, the second a weak header brilliantly volleyed home by Oscar.
When Shakhtar pulled level within a minute of the restart, you feared for the reigning champion, and the old statistic of no club ever successfully defending its European crown came to mind. Yet Chelsea had the last word: Juan Mata swung in a 94th-minute corner, and Victor Moses headed it home. The result was harsh on the visitors, who three games running have conceded goals from strong positions.
What Shakhtar did do well was exploit the clear weakness in the Chelsea side: both goals came from Chelsea's left flank, first Fernandinho and then Darijo Srna crossing for Willian to side-foot home. It was not the first time that Chelsea has conceded from that side this season: Reading, Arsenal, Manchester United Norwich and Tottenham have all scored goals originating from that flank.
On those occasions, Ashley Cole was the left back, but Wednesday it was Ryan Bertrand who was kept busy by the combination of Srna and Alex Teixeira taking him on. The deficiency down that side is nothing to do with either left back's ability, but rather the lack of defensive support offered by Eden Hazard, the left-sided player in front of him. Time and again, Hazard watched on as Shakhtar bombed down his zone on the right: when he made his first tackle on Teixeira, just before halftime, it was greeted with ironic cheers.
Di Matteo deserves credit for sticking with the Hazard-Mata-Oscar attacking trident, but there must be occasions, even at home, when Bertrand could play ahead of Cole (who was unavailable for this one, out with a hamstring injury). It also makes you wonder about the wisdom of Chelsea's decision to leave Florent Malouda out of its Champions League squad. The French international, whose former boss at Lyon, Paul Le Guen, thought he was a better left back than winger, is in the last year of his contract and out of favor, training with the Under-21s, who are not even allowed access to the first-team building.
However, that shouldn't detract too much from another super result for the champion, now atop Group E, with a tricky trip to Juventus next up. Chelsea now controls its destiny.
But there were some strange moments along the way: the game was delayed for 10 minutes after a floodlight failure, after which Robin van Persie capitalized on a goalkeeper error to lob an equalizer from 30 yards. Wayne Rooney scuffed a penalty, which struck his ankle and went in, while Javier Hernandez converted a last-minute goal to ensure safe passage to the next round and banish the memory of last year's group failure.
Behind them, the race to qualify in second is heating up: Galatasaray striker Burak Yilmaz scored a hat trick as the Turkish champion beat CFR Cluj 3-1, which has bunched the bottom three to within one point of each other. Braga, last with three points, may have a slight advantage in that it no longer has to play United -- but given that United has already qualified in first, it may rest players and field weaker sides for its next two games.
Lille pulled one back in the second half, Salomon Kalou scoring the best goal of the game. "Bayern is a machine, they are nearly impossible to beat at the moment," said Rudi Voller, sports director at Bayer Leverkusen (whose team is the only German one to beat Bayern this season). The result certainly sends a reminder to everyone else: last year's runner-up is also a major contender. Valencia should now join Bayern out of the group. The Spanish side leap-frogged BATE Borisov with a thrilling 4-2 win at the Mestalla stadium, and with BATE still to travel to Munich, its dramatic start to the group stage looks like it will fizzle out.
Within 20 minutes, he had scored two goals and hit the crossbar: he even found time later to earn a penalty, which he then missed. Benfica¹s 2-0 win leaves them needing to beat Celtic on Matchday Five in the fight for second place behind Barcelona. It won't be much comfort that Celtic comes into that game high after beating Barcelona; and with fond memories of Lisbon in this competition, too.