Football: Moravcik out to rescue his manager

Shy Slovakian aims to save Celtic and coach Jozef Venglos in today's Scottish Cup final at Hampden.
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The Independent Online
WHEN LUBOMIR MORAVCIK allows a shy smile to escape, the feeling it inspires is one of relief, rather than awe. Celtic's waif-like playmaker seems more in need of a comforting arm around his shoulders than to have the heavy burden of expectation put there.

Rarely can such an unlikely figure have orchestrated such a hold on an audience. Every time the little Slovakian trots over to take a corner at Celtic Park, some 60,000 fans rise as one with arms outstretched in a "we're not worthy" salute.

Celtic hope that Rangers come under Moravik's spell again when they meet in the Scottish Cup final at Hampden Park today. Should he hypnotise the other half of the Old Firm, even the normally placid Jozef Venglos, Celtic's coach, might join in the mass worship.

Venglos is the least excitable character ever to inhabit a dug-out, but Moravcik moved him the day he scored twice in the 5-1 rout of Rangers last November, and with good reason - the player who answered an SOS from his old boss had probably kept his venerable countryman in a job.

Now, the clouds are gathering again. If Celtic end the season without a trophy it might propel the 63-year-old coach back to his native Bratislava quicker than he had intended.

The importance of the occasion - both to Venglos and Celtic - has not escaped Moravcik. "This is a bigger game than that one [the 5-1 win]," reflected Moravcik this week. "It's very important for the players to win something, but we also want to give the fans something after losing the league. And the coach, too."

Moravcik and Venglos go back a long way. They shared the 1990 World Cup finals together, for Czechoslovakia, as coach and player. Yet, if reaching the quarter-finals established Moravcik's credentials, at least to those in the game, it cut little ice when he arrived in Glasgow last November.

Given Celtic's problems then - out of Europe and all but out of the league title race - the recruitment of a 33-year-old from the struggling Bundesliga team MSV Duisburg for just pounds 300,000 was not what supporters wanted, but all it took was 90 minutes of magic against Rangers to preserve Dr Jo's reputation and establish his own.

"I knew before the Rangers game that people had been talking about Dr Jo," said Moravcik, "and I knew it was an important game for him and me. Maybe it was better that no one expected anything from me, because I was able to surprise them.

"I wanted to show I was a good player. I had spent seven years in France with St Etienne and Bastia, and if people had not heard of me, what could I do," Moravcik shrugged. "But after that day, I was accepted. Maybe I showed courage."

What most people remember Moravcik showing that day, apart from two gifted feet, was a remarkable lack of emotion. His sensational first goal, which lit the green touch paper to the rout, elicited barely a smile while all around him - even a relieved Dr Jo was punching the air - reacted extravagantly.

Slovakian sang-froid, or maybe too many laid-back years in France at clubs ill-equipped to motivate a man with 70 international caps? "I just had a feeling of satisfaction," he said. "But I don't celebrate a lot."

He has had the chance to brush up on those celebrations, scoring six more goals before a hamstring injury in the 7-1 defeat of Motherwell interrupted the thriving partnership he was forming with Henrik Larsson.

His Celtic colleague Paul Lambert calls Moravcik "the most skilful player in the country", and Celtic's fans now fear their once-unheralded hero may depart if Dr Jo does. "I have a contract with Celtic and I will be here next year," he insisted. "I am staying. It's nice to be appreciated, but I have been loved everywhere I have gone."

Moravcik has never won a cup final in any country. "That's life," he said. "It's a shame. But I am not a big player, so its not a big story. It would be nice to win on Saturday, though."



Third round: Rangers 2 (Guivarc'h, Wallace), Stenhousemuir 0.

Fourth round: Hamilton 0, Rangers 6 (Johansson 2, Albertz, Kanchelskis, Vidmar, McCann).

Quarter-finals: Rangers 2 (McCann, Amoruso), Falkirk 0.

Semi-finals: Rangers 4 (Wallace, van Bronckhorst, Johansson, McCann), St Johnstone 0.


Third round: Celtic 3 (Larsson, O'Donnell, Stewart own goal), Airdrie 1.

Fourth round: Celtic 4 (Larsson 3, Brattbakk), Dunfermline 0.

Quarter-finals: Morton 0, Celtic 3 (Viduka 2, Larsson).

Semi-finals: Celtic 2 (Blinker, Viduka), Dundee United 0.