FOX Soccer Exclusive
Celtic aim to strike blow for Scotland
In midweek the Celts will play Juventus, one of the aristocrats of the European game, in front of a full-house of 60,000 at Parkhead, the sensationally atmospheric stadium where Barcelona fell earlier in the Champions League season.
Yet at the weekend there were only 6,175 to see Celtic continue their defense of the domestic title with a 3-1 win in the bleakly scenic setting of Inverness’s Tulloch Caledonian Stadium – and, make no mistake, Inverness Caledonian Thistle versus Celtic is just about as big as Scottish soccer has to offer right now.
Caley Thistle, under the former England legend Terry Butcher, is having its best ever season, lying second to Celtic. That doesn’t mean the little Highland club has got a chance of the Scottish title – Butcher’s boys trail Neil Lennon’s team by 18 points – but it permits a dream of Europe.
The class difference between No. 1 and 2 in Scotland was, however, emphasized by Saturday’s encounter. Lennon sent out virtually a second-string side that, by the end, featured three debutants and yet, after falling behind to an early goal, still won with plenty to spare.
Of the few victors who will play against the Italian club, the biggest name was goalkeeper Fraser Forster, who will be one of two England candidates under surveillance by national coach Roy Hodgson. He’s coming north for the big game mainly to assess Gary Hooper, a striker whose form has convinced Scottish critics he can be a candidate to partner Wayne Rooney on the journey to the World Cup in Brazil next year.
Speaking of which, the prospects for 2014 appeared brighter after England beat the Brazilians 2-1 in a Wembley friendly marked by the brilliance of young Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere. With Manchester United’s Danny Welbeck doing well and Daniel Sturridge, a flying starter at Liverpool, to come, the competition up front is hot. But a match-winning display against Juventus would do Hooper no harm.
In the short term, the priority is to earn Celtic any advantage to take to Turin for the second leg. Although Celtic won’t be the favorite, it wasn’t the case before Barcelona came to Glasgow – even though Lennon’s men had put up a brave fight in Catalonia before succumbing to a late goal – and yet the incredible Parkhead roar, allied to remarkable team discipline and Lennon’s game plan, carried them to a great triumph.
No one who was there could ever forget it. As soon as the respectful applause for Barcelona – the world’s most loved team, and rightly so – had died down, a more powerful noise began to come from the green-and-white slopes and the explosion that greeted the header from Victor Wanyama that put Celtic ahead was equaled when young substitute Tony Watt got a second goal, to which Lionel Messi replied.
As the final whistle went shortly afterwards, Lennon held his head as the magnitude of the achievement sunk in. There could have been no better celebration of Celtic’s 125th birthday the day before and, although the task of completing qualification for the knockout stages remained, it was done with another 2-1 win, over Spartak Moscow, in early December.
This is the reward. Celtic has, of course, met Juventus a few times before – indeed the Scottish club shares the Old Lady’s status as a former champion of Europe – and much has been made of the game 12 years ago in which Celtic won 4-3 when Martin O’Neill was coach and the striking match-up pitted Henrik Larsson and Chris Sutton against Alessandro del Piero and David Trezeguet.
It proved something of a hollow victory in that the Celts finished third in the group, falling into the UEFA Cup, but a similar outcome would delight Lennon this week. His men, after all, defended well enough in Barcelona and they could hardly face greater pressure in Turin, for all the quality of Mirko Vucinic and company.
A boost is the return of Forster after a neck injury caused the big keeper to miss five games. He appeared at fault in dealing with the slanting cross that led to Nick Ross putting the home side ahead at Inverness, but a bit of rustiness was to be expected and Lennon’s delight at having his last line of defense back was obvious.
Hooper, Wanyama and the rest of the big players will be restored and right-winger James Forrest, also injured of late, is a definite candidate; he could be important against opponents reckoned to be weak, if at all, down their left side. But the biggest player of all could be that Parkhead crowd. "You can’t put it into words," said the former Celtic striker Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink at the weekend. "They just make you run that extra mile."
Patrick Barclay is one of England's most experienced soccer writers. He has covered the game for every broadsheet newspaper and attended eight World Cups and nine European Championships. Barclay is the author of biographies of Jose Mourinho (Further Anatomy of a Winner) and Sir Alex Ferguson (Football - Bloody Hell!) You can follow him on Twitter @paddybarclay.
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