Celtic doesn't dazzle, but still makes Champions League final 16
Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, knelt in his dugout, head bowed, eyes averted from the pitch, the ribbing of his padded coat looming like some terrifyingly bloated armadillo. In the anxious silence of Parkhead, a silence all the more notable for the intensity of the sound that had preceded it, he must have heard two noises. First, the clunk of ball on bar. For a fraction of a second, he must have feared the worst. And then came the roar as Kris Commons' penalty bounced down and hopped up into the roof of the net. Lennon turned, fists pumping, face creasing with satisfaction. With nine minutes remaining Celtic had taken the lead and was on its way to the last 16 of the Champions League.
There were no tears from Rod Stewart this time. This wasn't a performance of heroic defiance as the win over Barcelona had been. Nobody will tell their grandchildren about this one. But there was drama, there was a 43-minute period when it looked like Celtic wouldn't make it through, and there was heart and commitment and a great sense of a side playing above itself. Given Celtic's record at Parkhead -- it has only ever lost twice there in the Champions League group stages, both times to Barcelona -- it can be hard to remember that it was the lowest-ranked side in the group. As Lennon said, "No one gave us a prayer going into the group."
Given Spartak's recent form, and the fact it had nothing to play for, there had seemed a chance it would wilt amid the intensity, but it produced its best performance in several weeks. As so often, though, it was undone by individual errors and indiscipline. As Spartak lost 5-1 to its Moscow rivals Dinamo the weekend before last -- the defeat that cost Unai Emery his job as manager -- the defending was abject. Valery Karpin's first game back in charge came against Zenit on Friday and ended in a 4-2 defeat, three of the goals coming from basic mistakes (and the other from collective laxity). In that game, there had been signs of coherence through midfield, of a team waiting to re-emerge.
Morale may have improved since Emery's departure, but the mistakes have not gone away. Juan Manuel Insaurralde had been sent off against Celtic in Moscow, and was sent off again on Friday; this time he stayed on the pitch but was broadly responsible for Celtic's opener. There seemed little danger as Giorgios Samaras swung a hopeful ball forward after 21 minutes but the Argentinian defender, under no pressure, somehow failed to control, his half-touch succeeding only in teeing up Gary Hooper, who didn't have to break stride before thrashing a first-time shot low past Sergei Pestyakov.
But this wasn't the Spartak of Friday. This was a team playing with verve and freedom and, unlike in recent weeks, it didn't fold in adversity. Emmanuel Emenike, a disinterested, sulky figure against Zenit, was unrecognisable. He was sharp, inventive and quick and, six minutes before the break, he crafted the equaliser. First he held off Beram Kayal, almost casually brushing him to the ground, then, faced with three defenders he waited intelligently before sliding a pass to Ari, who had moved into the space left by the one of the forward surges of the fullback, Emilio Izaguirre. The Brazilian dinked a clever finish over Fraser Forster.
On first-half performance, it was an equalizer Spartak deserved. The Kombarov brothers might not be anybody's idea of solid fullbacks but going forward there was cohesion and imagination and a combativeness that raises all kinds of questions about those final games under Emery. Celtic had perhaps been a little cautious in the first half, allowing Spartak around 60 percent of possession, but in the second it pushed higher, ensuring the game was played increasingly around the Spartak box. That led to an increase in crosses and it was in dealing with the crossed ball that a shaky Sprtak defence was at its shakiest.
Samaras had already volleyed against the post and Pestyakov mad an outstanding tip-over to keep out a Charlie Mulgrew header when Samaras plucked another deep cross from the sky. He had his back to goal and was no more than three yards from the goal line. All he could do was turn left and try to drive the ball across the area. All Marek Suchy had to do was stand him up. But the Czech, bafflingly, wagged an ineffectual leg. Knee struck knee. Samaras, on the turn, went down and the German referee Felix Brych awarded the penalty. Was it a dive? Maybe. Was Samaras looking for contact? Probably. Was it a foul? Perhaps. Was Suchy culpable for having made such a half-hearted challenge that was always likely to get him into trouble? Absolutely. It was the nervous half stab of a defender lacking the confidence to do nothing.
Four minutes later, Kim Kallstrom crunched his studs into Commons' thigh and received a second yellow card for a challenge that could have drawn red. That effectively ensured Spartak would not find an equalizer and that Celtic was through but it also spoke of the chronic petulance that runs through this side; it was the act of a frustrated player and the third red card shown to a Spartak player in the past five days. If Karpin, or whomever he appoints as permanent coach, can eradicate the mistakes and the ill-discipline, there is the makings of a very good side at Spartak.
Celtic, meanwhile, reaches the knockout stage for the first time in five seasons, a remarkable achievement given the financial problems in Scottish football. Lennon clashed with spectators recently after complaints about poor league performances but given the emotional drain of European nights, a certain dip is surely understandable. Lennon's job now is to ensure domestic form picks up enough that the league is as good as won by February and then his side, and the fans, can enjoy its reward in the last 16.