Hindsight does little to reduce O'Neill's anguish

Celtic's manager is still seething about his luck in Lyon
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The Independent Football

Martin O'Neill must have thought it was all a bad dream. There it was, on Eurosport, on Thursday morning. Celtic's name was listed among the last 16 survivors in the Champions' League.

A mistake was understandable. Juninho's controversial penalty winner for Lyon came so late it would have qualified for the stop press column in newspaper days of old. The bitter confirmation of the truth, though, was there for O'Neill to see on the television in his office on Friday morning.

The Champions' League draw was screened live but Celtic were shunted down next to the end-of show credits, along with the rest of the Uefa Cup cast. Right now, still being in Europe is no consolation for O'Neill and his players.

How could it be? Celta Vigo and Stuttgart, two teams that Celtic defeated en route to their Uefa Cup final appear-ance last May, had been given glamour assignments in London against Arsenal and Chelsea, while Porto - who beat Celtic 3-2 in extra-time in that epic final in Seville - had landed Manchester United. More pointedly, Lyon, had drawn Real Sociedad, whose current plight in Spain could usher the French side into the last eight. Don't tell Celtic about the thin line between success and failure.

"The boys are fed up with hard-luck stories," reflected John Hartson, whose goal along with Chris Sutton's seemed to signal that Celtic would get the point they required to progress until a harsh penalty decision gave Lyon a 3-2 victory. "It was so disappointing to come from behind twice and still go out. It was just like Seville. We did well in the Uefa Cup last season and hopefully we can again, but we cannot even think about that right now."

O'Neill, whose rage at the Stade Gerland was captured on camera, had barely calmed down on Friday lunchtime as he rewound his mind to Urs Meier's decision to penalise Bobo Baldé for a ball that brushed his arm - and the Swiss referee's failure to spot two first-half fouls on Sutton in the same box.

"Those were every bit as much a penalty as the one awarded against Bobo, more so," said the Celtic manager. "Without that penalty, we would have seen the game out. We were three minutes away from the last 16. I've done all the dwelling on it. I've watched the game back and it doesn't change the reality when you wake up the next morning. It's gone. We have some consolation that we are still in European football after Christmas but the Champions' League is gone now and we'll try to learn from it, if we can."

However, while O'Neill seeks knowledge, he could not resist taking a swipe at Graeme Souness - whose Blackburn side were also among Celtic's victims last season on their way to the club's first European final in 33 years - who sat on a TV jury on Wednesday night and questioned their ability.

"For five out of the six games, we have done very well," responded O'Neill. "We scored more goals than anybody else in the group. Someone complained about our ball retention and that is nonsense. We had 75 per cent of the game against Bayern in Munich. In the three games at Celtic Park, we've had 75 per cent possession. When we played Lyon in Glasgow, we had 24 passes before Liam Miller scored.

"But you don't just have to play well. You need luck as well and we have had none in the Champions' League. We were three minutes away from playing in the last 16 of a competition which saw some very big sides, like Inter Milan, fall by the wayside. It will take the players a while to get over it but they will have to."

Being parachuted down into the Uefa Cup worked for Celtic so well last season when they failed to clear the Champions' League qualifying round hurdle. This time, they have been given a third-round tie with Teplice of the Czech Republic, who are a long way from the glamour of that night in Seville last May, but who have already knocked out Feyenoord, the 2002 Uefa Cup winners.

The pain of Lyon may yet have a silver lining. The hurt could be exchanged for something more tangible in this season's final in Gothenburg for a resilient side who are so hard to knock down.