Celtic 2 Spartak Moscow 1: Even on a night of great tension, minds wandered from the play here. The home side had to better Benfica’s scoreline at the Nou Camp to progress to the knockout stages, but that game finished 0-0 before full-time here. Only seconds passed before the referee blew for full-time, though, confirming Celtic’s progress.
Apprehension was evident as Celtic sought the victory. It took until the 82nd minute for the home side to score the decisive goal, by which time doubt had begun to shape their play. A misjudgment came to their aid, since Marek Suchy was rash as he pushed Georgios Samaras over inside the penalty area. The foul was needless, since the Greek striker had his back to goal, but Kris Commons was emphatic in the way he lashed the spot kick high into the net.
Glory brought Celtic to the edge. Their last Champions League tie in Glasgow was a 2-1 victory over Barcelona and the emotion, the sheer intensity of feeling on that night last month was a backdrop to this game, since Celtic’s fate was in their own hands. They only had to better Benfica’s result away to Barcelona, and so Celtic Park was filled with that fragile and hopeful sense of expectation.
Spartak were obliging visitors, since they arrived in a state of unrest. Their coach, Unai Emery, was sacked following a 5-1 defeat to local rivals Dynamo, and Valery Karpin, a former Spartak manager, was in charge last night as a caretaker. The Russian side could only finish bottom of Group G and the expectation was that the sense of occasion, and the prize at stake, would lift Celtic beyond their reach. This is a club, after all, that last featured in the group stages of the Champions League in 2008, so the event was momentous for the Scottish side.
The visitors did not need to cope with anxiety, though, and they began the game in a mood of easy accomplishment. There was no recurring threat to Celtic, but enough attacking intent for Neil Lennon to rearrange his midfield after 15 minutes, moving Charlie Mulgrew infield, Samaras wide on the left, and leaving Gary Hooper as the lone striker, at least while Spartak had the ball.
The ploy was a form of containment, because Kim Källström, the Spartak midfielder, had been unchallenged as he played a one-two with Artem Dzyuba before steering a left-foot shot just wide. There was at least cause for Lennon to be irked, and to rail at his players, since a higher tempo and urgency would suit his team. The intention must have been to place unbearable pressure on Spartak.
Celtic knew the visitors’ defence was vulnerable since they plundered three goals in Moscow. The home side sought to probe at the weak points, and there must have been a sense of familiarity when Juan Insaurralde failed to cut out Samaras’s crossfield pass. The defender was sent off in Moscow for a professional foul on Hooper. On this occasion, his mistake allowed the ball to bounce to the striker who lashed it past the goalkeeper Sergei Pesyakov from 20 yards out.
Celtic found some dominance, and the crowd was roused as Commons volleyed wide and Scott Brown saw a sweeping effort saved. There ought to have been a sense of serenity, but aberrations were possible in both defences and when Efe Ambrose allowed himself to be barged aside by Emmanuel Emenike, the Spartak forward surged upfield before passing to Ari, who chipped a shot over Fraser Forster and into the net six minutes before the break.
It only needed moments of assertiveness in the 82nd minute, though, for Samaras and Commons to re-establish Celtic’s lead. But the game’s closing stages were agony for the home side because Spartak had been allowed long periods of second-half possession.
However, when Källström was sent off after receiving his second yellow card for a foul on Commons, who was taken off by stretcher, the result in this game at least was in Celtic’s favour.
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