Nou Camp reward proves there is life after Larsson

Celtic's stubborn streak may prove a turning point. Phil Gordon reports
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The Independent Football

When Ronaldinho was prevented by Uefa from leading his Barcelona team-mates in a heartfelt gesture of support to Henrik Larsson on Wednesday, it was an omen for what was about to unfold. The Brazilian would be stopped in his tracks a second time before the night was out.

When Ronaldinho was prevented by Uefa from leading his Barcelona team-mates in a heartfelt gesture of support to Henrik Larsson on Wednesday, it was an omen for what was about to unfold. The Brazilian would be stopped in his tracks a second time before the night was out.

Celtic's resistance was every bit as stubborn as Europe's governing body, who ruled that the Spanish club could not tamper with the pre-match pomposity of the Champions' League by wearing special T-shirts in tribute to Larsson, who will miss eight months after tearing his cruciate ligament against Real Madrid last Saturday.

It would have been so poignant. Larsson's status as a legend with Celtic fans after his 243 goals for the Glasgow club is already assured. The 10,000 who had travelled to the Nou Camp would have hailed Ronaldinho's act for the man who left them last summer for the lure of La Liga.

How fitting, though, that Larsson's old team - some have said ageing - should spoil Barça's party plans by earning a 1-1 draw and that his old partner, John Hartson, should be the one to find the net, not Ronaldinho. The result could not stop Barcelona from progressing into the last 16, nor could it maintain Celtic's interest. However, the consolation prize of third place in Group F, and a route into the Uefa Cup, is still very much a live issue.

Just as Barcelona were brought back down to earth by Martin O'Neill's side four days after taming Los Galacticos, so Celtic will undergo a culture shock today. From the palace of the Nou Camp to the poverty of Dens Park. Yet while Dundee may be £7m in debt, Magnus Hedman expects the test to be as severe.

The goalkeeper was Celtic's unlikely hero against Barcelona. "That's the way it is in football," said the Swede. "One minute you're fantastic, the next you're rubbish. You have to keep your feet on the ground. In a way there's more pressure on us at Dundee than we had at Barcelona. No one expected anything from us there, but in domestic football Celtic are expected to win every game."

The pressure, of course, has mounted considerably. Last Saturday's success by Rangers in the bad-tempered Old Firm encounter at Ibrox has seen them cut the gap on their rivals to just one point. Alex McLeish's side are also in action today - they take on a Hearts side who produced one of the results of the Uefa Cup on Thursday by going to Basle and winning 2-1.

"Celtic and Rangers players are under a lot more pressure than people realise," said Hedman. "The Celtic players deal with defeat in a different way - they respond quicker - to the ones I was with at Coventry City. Maybe it is because they are not used to it.

"We felt an injustice about last week at Ibrox. Alan Thompson being sent off was the start of our anger. We just have to accept that Rangers beat us and keep focused on the League. The players are very proud to play for Celtic and I think we gave the fans something to be proud of in the Nou Camp."

Some 24 hours later, Rangers swept aside the more modest opposition of Graz AK 3-0 to remain top of their Uefa Cup group and extend their unbeaten run to 15 games. "If we keep playing this way, we can go far," declared Nacho Novo, who pounced against the Austrian side just as he had against Celtic.

"Now we have a massive game against Hearts and we have to concentrate on that," said the Spanish striker. "They had a great result in the Uefa Cup. That will will make this game difficult. This has been a good week for Scottish football and I was pleased to see Celtic do well and I felt they played some good football."

Ironically, while Larsson's reign in Spain has been halted, Uefa could not stop his reunion with his old Celtic team-mates. "Henrik came to our dressing room and got a great reception which made him emotional," said Hedman. Barça are now trying to work out how to replace Larsson - Celtic could tell them, it is an impossible task.

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