Celtic seek exultation on sacred ground

Fans expectations are growing, says Phil Gordon, but O'Neill will be happy with a point in Oporto
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The Independent Online

Even religious pilgrims fall prey to the current fear of flying, so the Portuguese tourist industry will be grateful that 5,000 Celtic supporters are willing to keep the faith this week. The town of Fatima hosts one of the most-visited events in the Catholic calendar with its processions on the 13th of every month throughout the summer, up until October. Prayers are traditionally offered for world peace, but fewer gathered to hear them on Thursday.

Celtic's pilgrims are not so easily deterred. Portugal represents such a sacred place in the Glasgow club's history that flights were fully booked just hours after the Champions' League draw set up a meeting with FC Porto on Wednesday. Though the final destination is Oporto, it is Lisbon which will act as a magnet for many supporters. The city where Celtic won the European Cup in 1967 is a shrine to many.

Eight years ago, Celtic took thousands to a Uefa Cup tie with Sporting Lisbon and most seemed to be on the hallowed turf of the National Stadium in the afternoon before the game for an impromptu "match", all conducting Kenneth Wolstenholme commentaries and each imagining he was Steve Chalmers poaching the historic winning goal.

Martin O'Neill will be grateful for the backing of those 5,000 in the Das Antas Stadium, as he attempts to feed their dream of reaching the next phase in the competition. Two home wins have allowed Celtic to forget the injustice of the opening-night defeat at Juventus and after last Wednesday night's defeat of Rosenborg, Celtic now find themselves top of Group E at the halfway stage. "The supporters have been fantastic at Celtic Park," O'Neill enthused last week. "They kept us going when we were under pressure in both games against Porto and Rosenborg, but they were also a real inspiration when we played away at Ajax and Juventus and hopefully they will be again in Portugal."

More than 10,000 were in Amsterdam and 5,000 more in Turin, yet while the fans endeavour to make Oporto a home from home, O'Neill will be doing likewise on the pitch. Celtic's growing reputation has caused them to be squeezed more in the east end of Glasgow than they are on the road. O'Neill, though, has developed a counter-attacking style built upon a man dubbed "Roadrunner" by his team-mates. Didier Agathe has pace that would impress Maurice Greene. Though the right-winger was denied space when Henrik Larsson's solitary goal defeated FC Porto at Parkhead three weeks ago, the Portuguese will be unable to afford him such close attention on Wednesday if they want present Celtic with problems of their own.

"It is difficult to track down Mr Agathe," smiled Nils Arne Eggen, Rosenborg's veteran coach after last week's defeat. "He caused us so much trouble. He comes from so deep but he has so much pace that defenders cannot match him over 50 or 60 metres.

"Celtic can now match the best in Europe. They are a composed team who defend well, but they use their attacking players well. Larsson and [Chris] Sutton are always dangerous and so is Agathe's speed."

O'Neill stumbled across Agathe last August while watching him play for Hibernian and gazumped Alex McLeish by doubling the player's salary offer. The Frenchman accepted and the £50,000 transfer compensation to the Edinburgh club for a man with just weeks left on his contract was the steal of the season. "Didier was gone from being a £50,000 player to a £29m one," declared O'Neill after the Rosenborg game. "He was immense out there." It was the only piece of hyperbole from O'Neill all night. The Celtic manager is acutely aware of the dangers of being carried away and brushed off suggestions that their new status as group leaders would allow them to consider the prospect of victory to seal qualification two games ahead of schedule.

"Win in Porto?" he queried one interrogator. "Which Juventus could not do tonight? Let's not get carried away with ourselves. I still think qualification is a long way, away and I still think 10 points will be needed. All I know is that if we get something from our two forthcoming away games at Porto and Rosenborg, then that gives us a chance of having something to play for when Juventus come here at the end of October."

The Italians were grateful to escape the Das Antas with a 0-0 draw after being shredded by Porto last week and O'Neill reckons the Portuguese side hold the balance of power in the suffocating Group E. "If anyone has an advantage at this stage it has to be Porto because they are the only ones to have won away so far [at Rosenborg]. We have given ourselves a chance but the group is very tight. If you look at the other groups and see some teams with nine points and its almost over for some of them now."

If Celtic can profit from a winger and a prayer on Wednesday, they too might reach the hallowed ground.

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