Football: Larsson the believer

Phil Gordon finds a Celtic recruit in the mood to lower Liverpool's colours
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The Independent Online
Henrik Larsson may not, at first sight, look like the kind of man who presents a threat. With blonde rasta hair - well, he is Swedish after all - swept back behind an Alice band, the Celtic forward resembles the Eighties one-hit wonder Marilyn.

On Tuesday night, Larsson and his team-mates will attempt to prove they have more than one number in their repertoire by popping Liverpool's bubble in the latest version of the Battle of Britain. If Celtic reprise their last Uefa Cup performance of a fortnight ago, Parkhead will almost certainly be calling out Larsson's name.

The 26-year-old has filled the void left in the Celtic supporters' hearts by the defection of the idols Paolo Di Canio and Jorge Cadete in pre-season. That elevation was sealed by Larsson's part in the astonishing 6-3 win over FC Tirol Innsbruck to set up the first-round showdown with Roy Evans' team which has captured the imagination on both sides of the border.

The Swede, signed in the summer from the Dutch club Feyenoord, had a hand in four goals as Celtic managed to come back from the dead three times to overhaul the Austrians, topped off by a climactic finale with two goals in the last three minutes.

That success bought time for the new coach, Wim Jansen, and a club which carries its doubts on its sleeve following the turbulent departure of Tommy Burns last May, for failing to wrest the title from Rangers, and the subsequent exit of Di Canio, Cadete and the captain, Paul McStay, who retired though injury.

Few Celtic fans give their team a chance against Liverpool but Larsson shows a defiance to that theory that would make you think he had been brought up in the east end of Glasgow, instead of the sleepy Swedish town of Helsingborg. "We won the Tirol match because we kept believing everything was possible.

"We kept on going, even though we were seven minutes from going out. We had gone 4-2 up to go ahead on aggregate but when Tirol scored a third, a few fans got up and left the ground. I think they must have regretted that when they got back to their cars and heard what happened on the radio. The fans must believe as much as the players."

The faith of those supporters has been drained by a succession of false dawns and the letdowns brought about by mercenaries such as Di Canio and Cadete, but Larsson displayed a resistance to surrender simply to put on a Celtic shirt. He took Feyenoord to court to uphold his contract which stipulated he could move abroad if a club came in for him.

"I had been in Holland for almost four years and I wanted to try something new," explains Larsson. "I should have left earlier because that was the way I felt, but that is why I had it written into my contract." Larsson was left in tears when Feyenoord initially won an injunction against him but stood firm finally to gain his release for a bargain pounds 650,000.

A rebel with a clause should have rung alarm bells at Parkhead rather than the till, in the wake of those incessant wrangles with Di Canio, Cadete and Pierre van Hooijdonk, but Larsson insists he is different. "I got a very good contract from Celtic," he declares. "If I didn't know what I was signing, or my agent didn't know everything, then I would have been very silly to come to Glasgow. Whatever I have agreed to, I have to live with.

"Sure money is important. One of the reasons I left Holland is that the tax was 60 per cent whereas here it is 40 per cent. However, I am not playing football because of money, but because it's fun. I am lucky that I earn my living doing something I enjoy."

The pleasure principle was taken to the limit against Tirol. "I have played in front of bigger crowds, such as 90,000 for Sweden in the World Cup semi-final in 1994, but nothing as fanatical as that night. The supporters never stopped singing."

Liverpool, though, hold no fears for Larsson. "I have seen a lot of them on television and they have plenty of quality with guys like Steve McManaman, Karlheinz Riedle and now, Michael Owen. But so do we and at Celtic Park anything can happen - whether we are ready is for us to know and Liverpool to find out."