Having swept aside Blackburn Rovers in the second round of the UEFA Cup, Celtic’s team and support were on a high that hadn’t been seen in the East End of Glasgow since the halcyon days of Jock Stein. Dominant domestically and competitive on the continent, Celtic had proven themselves to be one of Europe’s most formidable teams.
The SPL season continued to tick on as Celtic knocked around Partick Thistle 4-0 after making a hero’s return to Celtic Park after their adventure at Ewood Park. A Henrik Larsson double against Livingston then increased their lead at the top of the table over Rangers who had been held to a draw against Aberdeen.
There could not have been a sterner test for Celtic in the round of 32 than Spanish side Celta Vigo. Vigo had finished 5th in La Liga the previous season and would improve upon that standing by reaching 4th at the end of the 2002-03 season.
They also had a strong European pedigree having dumped Liverpool out of the 1998-99 UEFA Cup and destroying Juventus 4-0 in the same competition the following year, with the Spanish press dubbing the side ‘EuroCelta’. Then-manager Miguel Angel Lotina would take the club to the ultimate level of the ‘EuroCelta’ era by taking Vigo into the last 16 of the Champions League in the 2003-04 season.
Competing handily amongst the likes of Valencia, Barcelona and Real Madrid, Celta Vigo were a classy and powerful team who would be unlike any of the opposition Celtic faced on a regular basis. Containing players such as Argentina international winger Gustavo Lopez, future Champions League winner Benni McCarthy and a former Arsenal defender as well as an eventual Barcelona star by the name of Sylvinho, this was a team not to be trifled with by Celtic.
Fears among the fanbase and the media began to creep in about Celtic’s supposed lack of creativity in midfield in the face of Spanish opposition. Some began to regret letting maestro Lubo Moravcik depart at the end of the 2001-02 season like he had planned. But what Martin O’Neill’s side lacked in flair, they more than made up for with their passion and determination to get the job done in the face of adversity.
History would be up against them as well, as Celtic had never negotiated a route past any Spanish opposition they had faced in European competition in seven previous attempts. Going up against the fifth best team in the strongest European league with a statistic like that hovering over their heads, the odds were certainly not in Celtic’s favour heading into the first leg at Celtic Park.
But when you have El Rey de los Reyes on your team, the odds don’t seem to matter.
Celta Vigo: Lucky Number 25
Knowing that this would be one of his toughest tests as Celtic manager, O’Neill deployed the same 3-5-2 system and personnel that had worked so well against Blackburn Rovers in the second leg. Doing themselves justice at home after the poor performance in the previous round was important for Celtic especially when coming up against a very good team in Celta Vigo.
A blow was struck right before the game when it emerged that one of Vigo’s favoured playmakers in Alexandre Mostovoi had passed a late fitness test to be eligible for the match, although noted cynic O’Neill had been prepared for that event despite Vigo’s insistence that there were doubts about the Russian’s availability.
The game is probably most famous for the erratic officiating of French referee Claude Columbo whose inconsistent decisions proved frustrating for both teams as well as the Celtic Park crowd in attendance. The flow of play couldn’t be maintained for a sustained period before Columbo would make an odd choice and throw the game off kilter.
Celtic almost flirted with disaster in the first 15 seconds when noted winger Lopez thrust a shot straight at Rab Douglas who could only save it with his hands. Vigo controlled most of the possession but didn’t go straight for the jugular much like observers predicted they would, much to the confusion of Celtic fans.
John Hartson couldn’t believe his luck when Jose Pinto came charging off his line to greet him only for the chance to be squandered. Steve Guppy came close by hitting the crossbar after a Didier Agathe cross was diverted into Guppy’s path by Larsson, as an incensed O’Neill screamed for a penalty for what he believed to be a foul on Larsson.
Spanish international Juanfran (no, not that one) sent Agathe for a cup of coffee with a great drag-back and Bobo Balde had to send the swinging cross out for a corner as Vigo began to work their way into the game. By the time of the interval, Celtic had been defending for their lives trying to prevent the away goal that would make life difficult for the rest of the tie.
The half-time break allowed Celtic to come back out with renewed vigour and the breakthrough finally came in the 51st minute.
After Sergio Fernandez fouled Larsson as the Swede barrelled through on goal, Chris Sutton swiped a volley at the contested set-piece ball, which took a deflection to send it out for a corner. Guppy swung the corner in and the ball was fought over by Hartson and Balde, who rose above three Vigo defenders to get a touch.
Hartson won that battle by knocking the ball towards the ground, and the awkward bounce allowed the alert Larsson to head the ball over the line to send Paradise into a frenzy. It was the King’s 25th goal of the season and like so many of his goals over his seven-year stay in Glasgow, it turned out to be crucial in the grander scheme of Celtic’s season.
Vigo began to push forward looking for an equaliser and Celtic’s defence was put under ever increasing pressure. Time almost stood still as Lopez sent a howitzer shot towards the roof of the Celtic net before Stiliyan Petrov bravely blocked with his chest denying Vigo the advantage.
Larsson nearly obtained a second goal on the night after Hartson sent him through with a knock down only for Pinto to save it with his leg. Sutton and Hartson also created a great chance by combining passes to send the Welshman one-on-one against the goalkeeper only for Sebastian Mendez to come sliding in with a well-timed tackle.
In the dying embers of the game, O’Neill’s continued exasperation with the match officials culminated in Columbo sending the Irishman to the stands. O’Neill’s dry wit summed up his disapproval of Columbo’s decision making by stating that “the referee’s performance left a lot to be desired” and he accused the fourth official of pushing him out of his technical area.
As the final whistle blew on a madcap night of action, the Celtic team took their applause from the crowd knowing they were just 90 minutes away of completing their objective of playing European football after Christmas.
Despite the narrow 1-0 lead, Celtic fans believed that their team had the ability to score in Vigo and if not win the match then at least win the tie via the away goals rule that had cost them a place in the Champions League earlier that season.
Vigo coach Lotina was unimpressed with the Celtic performance and claimed that his team was more afraid of the legendary Paradise atmosphere than the players on the park. It was clear that Vigo were more than prepared to settle the tie in their own comfort zone at the Estadio Balaidos.
With Celtic’s history against Spanish teams still lingering in the air, O’Neill erred caution to the Scottish press as well as Celtic’s faithful travelling supporters by saying that Celtic would still have “a mountain to climb” against Vigo. The second leg proved to be one of two matches that Celtic would lose en route to the UEFA Cup final.
The journey could quite possibly have ended high up the northern regions of Spain, had it not been for the coming of age of one Dianbobo Balde…
The Road To Seville Continues…
Kieran Polland is a self-proclaimed ‘Brendan Rodgers enthusiast’ and a journalism graduate of Stirling University. You can find him on Twitter @Kieran_Polland.