Harsh lessons as Celtic seek redemption

O'Neill's team paid for sloppiness in the Champions' League but Phil Gordon says salvation is at hand
Click to follow
The Independent Football

ITV's claim to be the home of football looked a little spurious on Wednesday. The decision-makers who opted for Lille-Manchester United – a match with nothing at stake – instead of Celtic v Juventus, were guilty of football ignorance if not metropolitan bias. And that was before a ball was kicked.

After it, the channel was simply left with egg on its face, a feeling which Bob Wilson endorsed later that night when reviewing the Champions' League highlights package from Parkhead and spoke glowingly of the seven-goal thriller as "the best game in the tournament".

The people at Uefa appear to have their finger more on the football pulse than those at ITV. What better way to follow up Celtic's epic drama than to sign them up for another blockbuster: this time, it's Valencia. And, no, ITV don't have the rights for the Uefa Cup.

Celtic may have exited from Europe's top competition, though you would hardly know it. After denting the morale of the side who hope their £110m close-season investment will be rewarded with a place in the final at Hampden in May, Martin O'Neill's team are confronted with the team who reached the last two Champions' League finals.

"I gulped when I saw the draw," O'Neill admitted. Valencia, having played 36 Champions' League games en route to those back-to-back finals, still consider themselves to be among the élite, regardless of what the label on the competition says. Celtic do not.

Unlike Arsenal, Celtic found nine points was not enough to carry them into the second phase from Group E. O'Neill will not dwell upon it, but he will learn from it, and attempt to make the consolation prize of the Uefa Cup into a launch pad rather than a parachute.

"People ask if I would have been concerned if we had made it into the second phase of the Champions' League," O'Neill said. "The answer is no. I would have taken the inevitable beatings we would have got because 12 games in this tournament would been terrific experience. But we didn't go through, and we didn't deserve to – Juventus and Porto did."

It is a harsh assessment. O'Neill, though, is keen for Celtic's players and fans to dispel the notion that one moment – Nicola Amoruso's fraudulently obtained last-minute penalty which gave Juventus a 3-2 win in Turin in the first match – turned a campaign made up of three home wins and three away defeats, even if the statistics are the same as Arsenal's.

"The only bad game we played out of the six was the 3-0 defeat at Porto," O'Neill said. "It was a great result to beat Juventus 4-3 here, but it was the quality of football that impressed me. It was as good as you are likely to see. Our play was complemented by the fact that Juventus played some great stuff. It was a marvellous match, played in a marvellous atmosphere. There's no doubt that the penalty decision in Turin cost us, but the Uefa Cup is a good competition and what we've done in the Champions' League has whetted the players' appetite."

None more so than Chris Sutton. "Towering" was the description O'Neill bestowed on the man he had faith in – and spent £6million to prove it – to overcome the bad reputation the striker was saddled with at Chelsea.

Roberto Bettega, the man whose diving header stopped England going to the 1978 World Cup finals, loves Sutton, too. "He gave us more trouble than anyone in Turin," said the man who is now Juventus's vice-president before the game on Wednesday. By the time Sutton had thumped the venomous 70mph volley which sealed Celtic's success, 58,000 Celtic fans had joined the chorus of praise.

Sutton symbolises the team spirit O'Neill demands, eschewing personal glory. "We all felt flat when we heard Porto had beaten Rosenborg," he reflected. "If we had got the decision in Turin, we might have taken something from Juventus. But I think that we proved that we can perform against anybody, on our day. However, if we're not quite at the races then it's proved that we'll get beaten. When you're in against the best teams in Europe you can't go out and be sloppy. We did that in two games, away to Rosenborg and Porto, and got punished."

Sutton, however, insists that his Celtic colleagues are eager to use the bitter Champions' League disappointment to good effect. "We're sick that we're not through to the next stage but the Uefa Cup is still a massive competition and there are lots of good sides in it. It'll be tough against Valencia. But this time we know when we go away to Spain, we have to play well. We're not good enough to be off our game and get victories."

If the robbery in Turin was the Italian Job which ultimately got Celtic sent down, then perhaps the Uefa Cup will prove to be their Shawshank Redemption: the treasure hidden on the outside as a reward for patience.