As Alex Ferguson once said: "Football, bloody hell." Celtic progressed to the knockout stages of the Champions' League last night with a 1-0 victory over Manchester United, whose own qualification hopes now lie in the balance after a pulsating, incident-packed denouement to their Group F match. This time, all Ferguson could say was: "We threw it away."
The barest fact of a famous victory on a night when the atmosphere went from rousing to flat and back to cauldron hot is that Celtic's Japanese midfielder, Shunsuke Nakamura, scored with a sweet free-kick in the 81st minute to settle the game. United, who had been dominant for large parts of the game, had a penalty superbly saved by Artur Boruc from Louis Saha in the dying minutes, and really should have scored one goal from open play at the very least.
Celtic's captain, Neil Lennon, said afterwards that Gary Neville, his United counterpart, had predicted that Saha would miss the spot-kick and Lennon felt Saha's "head was gone" due to an earlier blunder.
Had Saha not mistakenly thought he had heard a whistle for offside when in front of goal with the ball at his feet, he could have netted and changed the complexion of the contest much earlier. An internal inquest at United is sure to follow.
The upshot? Joy unrefined for the Celtic faithful, having seen their club through to the knockout phase for the first time ever. And déjà vu for United. This time a year ago they went into their final group match, facing Benfica, who needed a win themselves to go through and eliminate United. The same applies now. Last time, when the game was at Benfica, the Portuguese won. A consolation for United this time is that the decider in a fortnight is at Old Trafford.
Celtic sit atop the group this morning on nine points and are guaranteed a place in the last 16 because they are ahead of Manchester United on away goals in the crucial head-to-head department that separates sides on the same points.
"We're disappointed," Ferguson said. "We threw it away, no question. You need to score goals. We had some good opportunities but our finishing was disappointing. We always seem to do things the hard way. To qualify we need to get a point against Benfica. We'll try to win."
Evidently the defeat had surprised Ferguson, who looked almost bemused afterwards. He agreed that he "couldn't believe" United were still not qualified having taken nine out of nine points from their first three games. "[I can't believe it] given our start. But we need to score. If you don't take your chances you're left with egg on your face."
Ferguson again pointed to the home side's support as a factor that helped Celtic. In a poor first half for the hosts, the crowd was relatively quiet but, after half-time changes and an increase in tempo, they responded. "Celtic's support certainly help them," Ferguson added.
Ferguson's counterpart, Gordon Strachan, looking even more drained than his former manager, said: "I did not know until 15 minutes after the end that we'd qualified. I didn't believe it. I still don't. I hadn't considered the permutations. I'll probably go to sleep and find we've lost a goal somewhere now. But I'll get up early and if I see it on Teletext I'll believe it."