Defeat strengthens Celtic desire

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The Independent Football

Martin O'Neill spent a long summer last year, brooding about the events of one remarkable, sweltering day. This time, he will spend it trying to buy Celtic a place in the European sun.

The Celtic manager could be forgiven for believing his life had turned into Groundhog Day. This afternoon, he will be at Rugby Park knowing that victory will be enough to secure the Scottish Premier League title just days after the Uefa Cup had slipped through his grasp.

If that sounds familiar, it should. Last May, Celtic travelled to Rugby Park numbed by the pain of losing the Uefa Cup final to Porto in Seville just four nights earlier.

In a remarkable act of courage, they ignored the 80-degree heat to regroup and defeat Kilmarnock 4-0 on the final day of the season - but lost the championship to Rangers on the wafer-thin goal difference of one.

More pain in Spain last Wednesday ought to find a very different source of healing. Going out of the Uefa Cup quarter-finals to Villarreal may have destroyed the dream of a second successive final appearance, but such is the domestic strength of Celtic these days that the only mathematics involved is keeping pace with O'Neill's team.

Victory today will give the Northern Irishman his third championship in four seasons since going to Parkhead. Celtic are unbeaten in the League and are poised to exceed their own record of 103 points, set in 2001-02. Oh, and the goal difference? Celtic are a mere 40 in front of their rivals this time.

The bad news for Rangers is that O'Neill wants to make Celtic even better, enabling them to become a power on the European stage once more. "I think the whole team were driven on by the pain of what happened to us in those few days at Seville and Rugby Park last year," O'Neill reflected on Friday.

"Everyone was galvanised intowanting the championship back again. How long did it take me to get over it? Until the opening day of this season, when we played Dunfermline. Honestly. The whole summer you think about nothing else.

"This is now an important summer for us. We have had four good years but we need to freshen up the squad, and I would like five or six new players coming in. However, we need quality players, because we want to contest the European scene.

"I don't think you want just to occupy a position in the Champions' League, you want to really have a go at doing well in the competition. That's not to say we haven't done that in the last two years. We've competed well in the group stage, we've then gone on to a Uefa Cup final and then the last eight this time. But next season, I would like to be going with a realistic chance of beating the champions of France, Spain or Germany.

"What I am trying to do is not simply get a side who are capable of winning domestically, but taking that a stage further and being able to get through to the second stage of the Champions' League. There is no danger of this club resting on its laurels. Sometimes you have to invest a lot just to stand still."

O'Neill recognises his toughest contest could be in persuading a board who have preached prudence to loosen the purse strings. "The finan-cial climate is difficult in general, but especially in Scotland," he said. Celtic's remarkable love affair with their passionate support is the foundation of a £70 million turnover - a merchandising goldmine has been built around 60,000 season-ticket holders - that has pushed them into the world's richest 20 clubs despite minimal television income.

The first task will be to replace the departing icon, Henrik Larsson. "Players like him do not grow on trees," warned O'Neill. "It is sad to think that the defeat in Villar-real was his last European game for Celtic. We wanted to make it to the final in Gothenburg as a proper farewell for him. We are disappointed at bowing out in the quarter-finals. Sure, we beat Barcelona along the way, but when two teams are contesting the final in Gothenburg, it will hurt that we are not one of them."

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