Celtic's passing mastery worth a DVD of its own

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Gordon Strachan now gives his Celtic players DVDs to study with information on the opponents they will face next. He even questions his squad to make sure they have been doing their homework.

Last Tuesday night, Parkhead was the setting for a screen classic of its own. Strachan's boys passed a very important test by thrashing Benfica to take one step closer towards Champions' League graduation. A 3-0 success against a team who reached the last eight of the tournament last season is almost worthy of a DVD of its own from Celtic's merchandising department, but Strachan would never allow such a thing.

The man whose very first competitive match in charge of the Scottish champions was a 5-0 hammering by Artmedia Bratislava in last season's qualifying round of the Champions' League knows that football is even more fickle than films. Plenty of promising productions have had the plug pulled on them.

However, the inescapable truth is that Celtic have a five-point lead over Benfica for second place behind Manchester United in Group F. If they win in Lisbon in 11 days' time, and United defeat Copenhagen again, that will be enough to seal a place in the last 16.

Strachan refused to acknowledge that fact too much in his reflections on the victory over a Benfica side who ended Liverpool's reign as holders last term by winning at Anfield, and drew at Old Trafford. Yet, for large parts of the game, his clued-up side passed the Portuguese off the pitch and produced a stunning counterattack for Kenny Miller's killer second goal.

One of Strachan's biggest admirers is Tommy Gemmell, one of the few players to score in two European Cup finals - having done so in Celtic's 1967 win over Internazionale in Lisbon and then in the 1970 defeat by Feyenoord. Gemmell believes Strachan has a squad who work themselves to the bone for each other, as epitomised by Miller but also by Stephen Pearson, who came off the bench for the last few minutes and went seeking the third goal.

"The odds are heavily in their favour," reflected the Parkhead legend. "Even a point in Benfica still leaves them five ahead of Benfica with two matches left. I think they will do it. In the first 20 minutes they gave Benfica a going-over. They knocked the ball about well and had a lot of people working off the ball. There's a lot of confidence about the team. Gordon had that horrendous start in Bratislava but has come through that well."

Even someone like Gemmell was not spared being brought down to earth by his celebrated manager, the late Jock Stein, and being left out the side was something that happened to all Celtic's European Cup-winning team.

Strachan, arguably, has greater depth of choice, if not the same quality. That means that players such as Pearson and Jiri Jarosik are left on the bench despite the absence of Thomas Gravesen through injury, with the Dane's place given to the teenaged Dutchman Evander Sno.

Pearson has hinted he might look for a new club in January, but the lure of further Champions' League involvement might dissuade him. "This result is up there alongside the club's other great wins in Europe," he said. "Benfica came here with a big reputation, I don't think many people gave us much of a chance. They thought it would be Benfica who were passing us off the pitch - but that wasn't the case."

Comments