Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Lennon's finest hour as Celtic stun Barcelona in Champions League

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - NOVEMBER 07: Neil Lennon coach of Celtic during the UEFA Champions League Group G match between Celtic and Barcelona at Celtic Park on November 7, 2012 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Celtic's Neil Lennon celebrates defeating Barcelona following the UEFA Champions League match at Celtic Park, Glasgow
Rod Stewart in the stands during the UEFA Champions League match at Celtic Park, Glasgow

Celtic 2 Barcelona 1: A hero. That was Neil Lennon's wish on the eve of this match. For one or perhaps two to emerge. “You never know who it will be,” he had said.

He got a team of them on a night that will sit comfortably among some of the greatest this 125-year old football club has ever known.



When Tony Watt, a 72nd minute substitute, and a £50,000 signing from Airdrie United bore down on Victor Valdes with seven minutes remaining and smashed his shot into the goal of Barcelona, that Barcelona, a football ground shook, and a manager, after his celebration had subsided, bore a look of disbelief. He was not alone.



Celtic were supposed to have had their moment of glory in the Nou Camp two weeks ago. Then they were brave. Then they scored. Then they were beaten, at the death. This time there was fear as the seconds ticked through injury-time to an historical victory. For this time, they led.



There would have been recriminations if the 91st-minute lifeline that Lionel Messi had given his side had proved a platform for a draw. Alex Song and Javier Mascherano could both have been sent off by then, but this was Celtic's night and they stood firm, led by a giant.



No one did more than Fraser Forster to rewrite history, a 6ft 7in piece of Geordie rock at the heart of Celtic glory, a man who did not take up goalkeeping until he was 13, who refused to let his side lose their dream.



He was immense, and as Lennon humbly admitted afterwards, he had to be. There is a danger that people get bored of Barcelona's statistics, but they are crucial to their unique place in footballing history. Twenty three shots on target, 76 per cent possession, away from home. Twice they struck the frame of Forster's goal in the first half, first through Messi and then through Alexis Sanchez. After Victor Wanyama had the temerity to head Celtic ahead in the 21st minute, a moment that rocked Celtic Park, Forster was peppered. His second-half display was colossal.



"My goalkeeper was fantastic when I needed him to be," said Lennon. "He made some great saves. To beat Barcelona you need your goalkeeper to play well and the payers in front of them to be disciplined because they are working so hard and we got all of that.



"The players are heroes. I can't speak highly enough of their performance tonight. They will go down in the history books as the team who probably beat the best team in the world. It's one of the greatest night's in the club's recent history. It's very poignant to have done it on the 125th anniversary."



The manager shied away from praise. "Everyone goes on about tactics. it's about players. You set the team out and then it is about them."



But it was also about him. He turned to Watt on his substitute's bench. Tito Vilanova turned to David Villa, Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas. Lennon's entire team cost less than the summer purchase of Song. Chelsea and Barcelona was never David and Goliath, not with a billionaire involved. This was. The manager knew it. "As a manager I don't what will top that," he said. "I hope I do. I hope I can progress. It's right up there with anything I've achieved, not just in my football career, but in my life."



His name rang out in the Glasgow air as he saw to his media duties afterwards. There were handshakes from doormen and security guards outside the ground who probably heard, rather than saw, such drama. That was not difficult. Celtic Park opened its lungs to breathe fire and desire into the hearts of their players. From the moment a breathtaking montage was thrust into the air by every supporter, with their own individual colours to spell out "125 years", something historic drifted in the air.



Wanyama's towering header, after 21 minutes, from a Charlie Mulgrew corner, gave hope to Hooped dreams, and from there, they worked tirelessly to repel the red-and-blue assault. Jordi Alba was outstanding on the left flank, Messi probed, but their guile was met by Celtic guts.



Forster stood even taller to deny first Messi, then Alexis, then Messi again, then Xavi. Then Watt charged through and scored, "probably the greatest moment of my life," he said. He is 18. There will not be many better.



By then Song had been withdrawn by his manager. Twice he had fouled after having been booked. He should have walked after going through the back of Miku. Watt charged through again with two minutes of normal time remaining and Mascherano climbing all over him. Play was waved on and three minutes later, Messi finally beat Forster, after a rebound fell into the Argentine's path. There would be no further drama though, and with two games remaining in Group G, Celtic are second.



"We have a greater chance of going through than we would have expected," added Lennon. "The problem we have is that the expectation level will increase but I want the players to enjoy the moment."



It is one that will last.



Man of match Forster.



Match rating 9/10.



Referee B Kuipers (Neth).



Attendance 55,283.



Hearts face closure threat over tax bill



Scottish Premier League club Hearts could be forced out of business by the end of the month because of an unpaid tax bill.



The Edinburgh club, which is owned by Lithuanian businessman Vladimir Romanov, has told supporters that unless they can provide "emergency backing" the club "could possibly play its last game on 17 November against St Mirren".



"This isn't a bluff, this isn't scaremongering – this is reality," Hearts said on their website. The club has been hit with a winding-up order for a tax bill of £449,692.04.



"Without your help now, we could be entering the final days of the club's existence," the board said in a statement. "There are limited options for the board to take to avoid the catastrophic consequences a funding shortfall would mean."



Hearts wants supporters to buy two tickets for three forthcoming matches now and invest in a share issue.

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