Celtic find few frills after Seville

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The Independent Football

The St Dariaus and St Gireno Stadium could scarcely contrast more with the Estadio Olimpico in Seville. Both contain an athletics track, but that is where the similarity ends.

When Celtic get a new European adventure up and running in Kaunas on Wednesday, the occasion will be stripped of every vestige of the glamour that accompanied the last one. A worldwide television audience of hundreds of millions joined the 50,000 lucky enough to get a ticket for the Uefa Cup final in May which saw Martin O'Neill's team eclipsed by FC Porto on a night of drama.

There will be barely a tenth of that number in the Lithuanian city when Celtic face FKB Kaunas in the second qualifying round of the Champions' League. The Scots may have been Britain's longest survivors last term, but this time they are the first into action, while the rest of the nation is still on holiday.

It seems inconceivable that such an heroic effort last season could be so scantly rewarded while, for example, the winners of the Austrian league receive a passage into the third qualifying round. However, O'Neill and his players are not inclined to grumble about such a rapid slide in status.

Kaunas has a special place in Celtic hearts, because it was from there that their epic Uefa Cup adventure began last season. Lithuania's national stadium may not have seemed that special at the time: Celtic were only there because they had been parachuted into the competition as a "consolation" after losing their expected place in the Champions' League to FC Basel. Then, FC Suduva were dismissed on a 10-1 aggregate as O'Neill's team embarked on a run that saw them knock out Blackburn Rovers, Celta Vigo, VfB Stuttgart, Liverpool and Boavista to prompt an invasion of Seville by 80,000 Celtic fans - only 30,000 of whom had tickets - to witness the heartbreaking 3-2 defeat in extra-time that deprived the club of their first European trophy in 36 years.

Celtic have expanded their horizons even further since then. They have been taking part in a prestigious event in the United States involving Milan, Barcelona, Manchester United and Boca Juniors. O'Neill's side defeated the South American champions 1-0 in Cleveland yesterday courtesy of a Chris Sutton goal in the 59th minute.

While the earlier 4-0 thumping from United in Seattle - their first defeat by an English side in 14 games under O'Neill - was hard to bear, the figures which mattered most to Parkhead's commercial department were the thousands who got up in the middle of the night to watch pay-per-view screenings. Roy Keane, who travelled to Seville to watch Celtic two months ago, gave his favourite team a warning. "Celtic came up just short in the Uefa Cup final, just as we did with Real Madrid," said the United captain. "They are a great team with a great manager, but there is such a fine line between winning and losing in Europe, you have to keep looking to improve. Celtic probably need to get a few more top-quality players in."

However, Keane's counterpart, Paul Lambert, is convinced that the heroes of Seville still have one last triumph left in them. "This does not have to be the end of an era," declared the Celtic captain. "It can be the start of a new one. If we get a couple of top-quality players, we will bring trophies back to Celtic.

"Freshening up a squad is fine, but you do not do what we did last season and then dismantle the team."

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