O'Neill draws comfort from Scotland's bigger picture

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Staying out late was an unavoidable part of the job for Martin O'Neill and Dick Advocaat on Thursday night. Not another office Christmas party – though there were hangovers for varying reasons the following morning – merely a reluctance to quit the spotlight.

At 11.30pm, O'Neill was still shaking hands with friends in the Parkhead foyer after Celtic's bittersweet night which few of his 58,000 guests had wanted to end, and certainly not in the cruel twist which sent Valencia into the next round of the Uefa Cup when most of Europe had gone to bed.

Except Advocaat, who was out dancing in Paris. The Rangers manager had to be dragged off the pitch at the Parc des Princes after his team had beaten Paris St-Germain to reach the last 16. The little Dutchman's footwork was scarcely that of Gene Kelly, but jubilation, mixed with relief, supplied enough energy to lead 8,000 travelling Rangers fans in a party which did not see the stadium cleared until midnight.

Advocaat will be on his own when the music starts again in February, after the Old Firm monopolised the Uefa Cup drama on a night in which their tale of two cities embraced the ecstasy and pain of penalty shootouts.

As Rangers celebrated after PSG's Mauricio Pochettino struck the bar with his kick, Parkhead was stunned into silence when Valencia's Miguel Angel Ferrer beat Robert Douglas as even the penalty segment of this marathon tie spilled over into sudden death.

However, O'Neill, to borrow Trainspotting's maxim, prefers to choose life. The Celtic manager believes that his club, despite the harsh outcome, has witnessed a rebirth in Europe this season. And possibly Scotland has, too. "I am pleased for Scottish football that Rangers have gone through," he said. "At least Scotland has one representative, and I thought we could have joined them.

"I am hoping the reputation of Scottish football will have been raised because European football decides your stock and we did well against Valencia, as have Rangers in Paris. To outplay the side who reached the last two Champions' League finals is significant – when it comes down to penalties, you are in the lap of the gods."

Ironically, it was the man the Celtic fans have nicknamed "God" who let them down. Henrik Larsson's sublime curling shot during normal time levelled the tie, but the Swede, who had run his legs into the ground in the previous two hours, blazed his penalty over the bar. Stilian Petrov sent his wide and Joos Valgaeren forced Santiago Cañizares, inconsolable after the shootout with Bayern Munich at San Siro last May, into his only save of the seven penalties.

O'Neill was not dishing out platitudes. Valencia's coach Rafael Benitez predicted that Celtic "have the potential to emerge as a European force" and O'Neill has the zeal – as his court action last week against an errant newspaper proved –to ensure that any empire building stays strictly in the east end of Glasgow, rather than Manchester.

"Eventually, Celtic will compete at the level Benitez is talking about," he reflected. "We have made great strides in beating teams like Juventus, Porto, Rosenborg and Ajax."

Benitez touched on the 12th man O'Neill can call on: passionate support. "The crowd were fantastic," O'Neill said. "This was reminiscent of our win over Juventus."

For Rangers, the prospect of meeting Internazionale, Milan or even Leeds, may soften the blow in the Scottish Premier League. They face Hearts today – while Celtic travel to Dunfermline – knowing that a team who have seen off Juventus and Valencia from Fortress Parkhead are unlikely to lose a 12-point lead.

Indeed, O'Neill's vision is ominous. "The only way to get to the next level is by winning the SPL again," he said. The manager put his club's pain into context. "It's less than two years since the team were booed off after being knocked out of the Scottish Cup by Inverness Caledonian Thistle."

Comments