Flight is right for Nakamura and Celtic

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The Independent Football

John Collins knows what it is like to bring the house down with a free-kick. The former Celtic star was doing it when Shunsuke Nakamura was still just a teenage kid in Yokohama, but last Tuesday even Collins had his breath taken away by the new idol of Parkhead.

The Japanese magician triggered an explosion of noise from 60,000 fans that could be heard in Tokyo, never mind miles across Glasgow, where Collins was in a TV studio analysing his old club's remarkable Champions' League triumph over Manchester United.

Nakamura underlined why he is dubbed the Beckham of the Far East with that 28-yard free-kick that curled up and over United's wall before flying beyond Edwin van der Sar's grasp into the top corner of the net. "Shunsuke is world class," enthused Gordon Strachan later.

Collins knows what a difficult skill the Celtic midfielder executed nine minutes from the end of a pulsating Battle of Britain. "Nakamura has great technique," said the man whose Hibernian team face the elfin Japanese today in the Scottish Premier League. "Constant practice is the only way to achieve that, but it is one thing to do it in training and quite another to do it in a high-pressure situation in a game.".

"I remember scoring a free-kick against Rangers in a game at Ibrox in 1994 when Celtic's fans were banned from the stadium. When the ball hit the net, the place was in silence apart from 11 of us shouting out on the pitch. In France, Lyon have Juninho, the Brazilian, who is rated Europe's best because he replicates the flight with the ball each time. Nakamura has now done it twice against Man United and is in the top bracket."

There was little of the fluent passing game that bemused Benfica when they lost 3-0 at Parkhead. Instead, Celtic seemed nerve-ridden in the first half before Strachan admitted that his gameplan of trying to flood the midfield to cut the supply to Wayne Rooney and Louis Saha had been a risky strategy.

The Celtic manager only gave his team "five out of 10", but with Nakamura around, Celtic only needed one chance. However, with the capricious Spanish referee, Manuel Gonzalez, punishing Shaun Maloney for a handball as he jumped to repel Cristiano Ronaldo's free-kick in the dying moments, the Scottish champions required Artur Boruc to preserve that precious lead.

The Polish goalkeeper remem-bered where Saha had placed the ball when he converted a penalty at Old Trafford after Ryan Giggs had gone down without contact. "I don't know if this is justice after Old Trafford," said Boruc. "That was never a penalty and I don't know if this one was either. I have made better saves than that in my life, but this was the most important."

Strachan's side won the head-to-head on the away-goal rule. Lucky? Celtic would beg to differ. In 2001-02 they beat Juventus 4-3 on the last night to collect nine points but were eliminated on goal difference, just as they were in 2003-04 when Lyon snatched a late penalty for handball to win 3-2. "I could not have taken that again," said their captain, Neil Lennon. "When the ref gave a penalty, my stomach was sick. Now we have qualified, it feels like a dream."

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