Everything and nothing has changed in the 30 years since Sir Alex Ferguson brought his Aberdeen teams to Celtic Park and shattered Glasgow's stranglehold on Scottish football. A wealthier man Ferguson might be, and one now with the world's finest talents at his disposal, but the years rolled back as last night drew on and a stadium of screaming Glaswegians willed Celtic to a Champions League victory to go with the one they collected from Manchester United two years ago.
Lightning did not strike twice, though the 13th-minute goal through which Celtic led for 71 minutes here was every much as fine as the one from Shunsuke Nakamura which Ferguson admitted made the bus ride out of the city such a miserable one after a 1-0 defeat in 2006. But pride was restored in Celtic and in Scottish football. The ignominy of their Champions League pasting at Old Trafford last month – and suggestions from Paul Ince, among others, that it was "boys against men" – hurt them deeply and it was no coincidence that what Strachan most wanted to say last night was that his team are "not boys as people say."
Though Celtic Football Club might run through Ferguson's pores – he still remembers vividly the 1967 night they won the European Cup in Lisbon while he was in Hong Kong during his only tour of duty playing for the Scottish senior side and was reminded of that here in huge banners depicting the old trophy and declaring "We won it first" – he seemed to think that his own "boys" could do it for him last night.
Maybe his keen grasp of history should have told him what kind of a baptism it would be for Rafael da Silva and goalkeeper Ben Foster, with a handful of United appearances between them. Rafael announced his arrival in United's convincing win in Aalborg but he was steamrollered, as Celtic set about proving midfielder Barry Robson as good as his word by putting themselves in United's "faces". Rafael, it was, who conceded a 13th-minute free-kick, by flattening Shaun Maloney, and who lost Scott McDonald when Gary Caldwell recycled it. The Australian took the ball down on his chest and placed the most delicate right foot lob over Foster before Rio Ferdinand could place a challenge. Strachan has said before the game that it might take a thing of beauty to overcome United and so it almost proved.
Foster also struggled for a time in a maelstrom in which Celtic showed Ferguson that the Govan spirit has not been lost during his years in leafy Wilmslow. He calls his family Fairfields, after his own father's shipyard, and the spirit of that old place was alive and well in the Scotland central defensive partnership of Caldwell and Stephen McManus. They were impermeable, allowing none of the through passes which destroyed the Scots at Old Trafford last month. Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo and Michael Carrick in turn each sought ways through in the first half – Ronaldo after turning Robson with a particularly exquisite piece of skill. But there was no way through. The only man who managed it was the individual wearing a grey and red striped hooded top who for no apparent reason invaded the pitch.
For Ferguson, the decision to start with Carlos Tevez and relegate Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney to the bench, perhaps with Saturday's trip to Arsenal in mind, looked like the lesser gamble, but the Argentine is struggling desperately with the new bit-part role he has been allocated since Berbatov's arrival. The raids of Ferdinand, who ballooned over from close range after Nemanja Vidic flicked a Ronaldo corner into his path early on, and had another effort cleared off the line – were more telling than his.
Little wonder Ferguson restored Berbatov, in place of Nani, after the break. He moves implacably even in a stadium and a noise like this and within minutes, his flicked header from a Giggs corner was cleared off the line by Maloney. Ronaldo outshone him. There are plenty of signs that he is restored to last season's performance levels and the flick which sent Carrick running through on goal, into another Celtic brick wall, was just another.
By that time, a weary Celtic looked like they might just hold on. While Strachan removed teenage strike Cillian Sheridan and played one up, Rooney replaced Tevez and Patrice Evra arrived in place of Rafael to play left midfield. It was desperate stuff, a 2-3-5 system, Ferguson hauling Fletcher back 20 yards at one stage to deliver instructions.
However, Ronaldo's urgency proved telling in the end. His dipping 20-yard shot seemed to deceive Artur Boruc who parried it straight to Giggs, who tapped in. It meant no repeat for United of the ignominious 2006 journey out of Celtic Park which Ferguson was remembering on Tuesday afternoon. But only just.
Celtic (4-4-2): Boruc; Hinkel, Caldwell, McManus, Wilson; Brown, Hartley, Robson, Maloney (O'Dea, 75); McDonald (Hutchinson, 81), Sheridan (Donati, 63). Substitutes not used: Brown (gk), Naylor, Nakamura, Caddis.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Foster; Rafael (Evra, 66), Ferdinand, Vidic, O'Shea; Fletcher, Carrick; Ronaldo, Giggs, Nani (Berbatov, h-t); Tevez (Rooney, 71). Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Anderson, Park, Evans.
Referee: T Henning Ovrebo (Nor).
Results: Celtic 0 AaB Aalborg 0; Manchester Utd 0 Villarreal 0; AaB Aalborg 0 Manchester Utd 3; Villarreal 1 Celtic 0; Manchester Utd 3 Celtic 0; Villarreal 6 AaB Aalborg 3; Aab Aalborg 2 Villarreal 2; Celtic 1 Manchester Utd 1.
Remaining group stage fixtures: Celtic: 25 Nov: AaB Aalborg (a); 10 Dec: Villarreal (h). Manchester United: 25 Nov: Villarreal (a); 10 Dec: AaB Aalborg (h).Reuse content