Henrik Larsson’s winner in the first leg against Celta Vigo provided Celtic with the platform to reach the last 16 of the UEFA Cup. Ninety minutes was all that remained between Celtic and European football after Christmas, which would’ve been the first time that this had happened since 1980.
That year Billy McNeill’s Celtic had reached the quarter-finals of the European Cup before being defeated by Real Madrid and while the UEFA Cup wasn’t as high profile as the revamped Champions League, it was still considered a massive achievement for the Celts, especially after the dismal time of the 1990s.
To do so they would have to get past a resolute Vigo side who were in no mood to be playing games after their narrow defeat in Glasgow. Taking a leaf out of Graeme Souness’ book, then-coach Miguel Angel Lotina confidently stated that Celtic would stand no chance in the Estadio Balaidos without 60,000 of their own cheering them on.
“I wasn’t impressed much by Celtic, nothing they did surprised me. The only impressive thing was their supporter. They are a great force, but they will not be in Vigo.”
Celtic manager Martin O’Neill fired back at his opposite number for not focusing on his own team’s deficiencies and believed that the talking would be better served on the pitch.
“I couldn’t care less what some other coach says. He should worry about his own team – they’re a good team. If we’re good enough in a fortnight we’ll go through. If not, we won’t.”
Before that though, Celtic had matters to attend to on the domestic front. A 3-1 victory over Motherwell at home before a narrow solitary goal past Hibs at Easter Road set up the second derby of the season at Ibrox.
Chris Sutton would score the fastest ever derby goal after just 19 seconds but shots from Rangers’ Craig Moore, Ronald de Boer and Michael Mols consigned the Celts to only their second league defeat of the season. John Hartson narrowed the deficit midway through the second half but it wasn’t enough for O’Neill’s men to stop Rangers from reaching the top of the league table for the time being.
O’Neill warned the Celtic fans as well as the Scottish press about the difficult task the men in hoops were about to undertake in Vigo. ‘A mountain to climb’ was the phrase the Irishman used to describe what it would take for Celtic to advance further in the UEFA Cup.
Nobody could have anticipated the drama that was about to take place on the northern coast of Spain, and it is where Celtic’s UEFA Cup dream could have ended if a burly Welshman and a strapping young Guinean didn’t have something to say about it…
Celta Vigo: Blood and Thunder
O’Neill opted merely to tinker with the team that had played against Vigo two weeks before, with Alan Thompson preferred to Steve Guppy in the left wing-back position. The trio of Larsson, Sutton and Hartson were to ensure that Celtic snatched an away goal that could wrap up the tie.
All hands were on deck for a very frustrating night for the Celtic support watching in the stadium and at home.
The Estadio Balaidos was a quaint ground compared to the cauldron of Celtic Park, situated on the Port of Vigo that had dealt with environmental damage over the years. But the tight dimensions of the pitch only added to the atmosphere being generated by the Vigo fans. They could sense that Celtic were there for the taking and their players were very much the same.
To say the match was physical would be an understatement. Having already gone through 90 minutes of blood and thunder a few days prior against Rangers, Celtic were now having to undergo a similar experience on an uncharacteristically chilly Spanish night. The Vigo players were not afraid to stick the boot in, with the usually tough Neil Lennon forced to go off with a hamstring injury ten minutes into the second half.
Celtic started the game reasonably well, with Larsson nearly grabbing an early goal after breaking free in the box only to be denied by Vigo captain Fernando Caceras with a great interception. Vigo continued to keep poking and prodding at the Celtic defence looking for holes. Joos Valgaeren had a torrid night dealing with the Vigo attackers, with Jesuli and Gustavo Lopez causing havoc whenever they roamed forward.
Vigo got the goal they were after to level the tie in the 24th minute. Celtic were unable to deal with Benni McCarthy’s clever cut-back gifting the ball to Jesuli, who sent Sutton the wrong way before firing a shot that deflected off Ulrik Laursen to land in the net.
For the first time since the infamous Basel game back in August (FK Suduva barely counts), Celtic had conceded in a European tie and now questions were about to be asked of the Glasgow giants’ mentality when dealing with this situation. Their ace in the hole was Vigo’s lack of an away goal which Celtic still had the opportunity to claim.
12 minutes after Vigo scored, a long punt from Laursen landed perfectly on Sutton’s head who bounced the ball further forward into the path of Hartson. The old school centre forward then used his strength to manoeuvre past Eduardo Berizzo, driving a low shot into the bottom corner of the net to give Celtic the away goal that granted them breathing space in the game.
While his screamer against Liverpool at Anfield in the same competition is more fondly remembered, Hartson would later credit this goal against Celta Vigo as his most important strike in a Celtic shirt.
Hartson had to control his temper later in the game when French midfielder Peter Luccin sent a mouthful of saliva in the Welshman’s direction, knowing that Hartson was already on a booking. With retaliation potentially resulting in his team being reduced to ten men, Hartson powered on and ignored Luccin’s mind games.
Vigo continued to surge forward and in the 54th minute regained the lead in the match when Lopez was given too much space on the left-hand side, allowing him to send a low cross into the path of McCarthy to tuck in and leave Vigo with only one more goal to get and 35 minutes remaining.
Despite Paul Lambert, who had replaced the injured Lennon, trying to dictate the pace, Vigo smelt glory in the air and kept bombing towards the Celtic goal. Deciding to cut his losses and run, O’Neill opted to bring Hartson off for veteran defender Jackie McNamara and switched to a basic 4-4-2.
Wave after wave of Vigo players came swarming around the midfield and defence, but one man rose above them all to ensure that Celtic did not concede any more goals than was allowed.
Bobo Balde hadn’t quite achieved cult hero status yet but this game was the start of his love affair with Celtic fans. The big man could give and take in equal measure and in a game where Vigo players were putting everything into their challenges, Balde puffed his chest out and let them fire shots at his armour.
Even if Vigo tried a long ball approach, Balde would just leap into the air and wallop it away with his head like it was a piece of paper. The Guinean was immense and became just as vital to the UEFA Cup run as goal scorers like Larsson and Sutton were. Balde would later be voted by Celtic fans as the 2002/03 Player of the Year, an impressive feat considering the competition he was up against.
As the Celtic team tried to hold back the flood of Vigo players grasping for their cargo, the green and white section of fans nervously counted the seconds towards full time. Vigo were beginning to set up one last chance when the referee blew his whistle at the exact end of stoppage time, much to their chagrin.
But Celta Vigo’s anger was ignored in favour of Celtic’s delight. They had achieved their number one priority when they had failed to reach the Champions League in August and that was to still be in Europe in 2003. In doing so they had got rid of two monkeys off their back: never beating Spanish opposition, and staying in European competition after Christmas for the first time in 23 years.
They had gone through heartbreak in Basel, rudimentary tasks in Suduva, gleefulness in Blackburn and panic attacks in Vigo, but Celtic had made it to the last 16 of the UEFA Cup.
With the UEFA Cup on a break until February, this would allow Martin O’Neill to focus once again on regaining the lead at the top of the league table over Rangers. The SPL title race would begin to heat up as the bells rang in 2003 and Celtic needed to turn their attentions to that for the time being.
In the last 16 Celtic would be going up against another representative of a strong European league, this time the Bundesliga’s VfB Stuttgart. Much like Celta Vigo they were a renowned team in Europe having won the UEFA Intertoto Cup a few months prior.
Little did the Celtic fans know when they discovered their last 16 opponents, they would have to do it without their Swedish talisman…
The Road To Seville Continues…