O'Neill relies on Larsson to heal scars of Seville

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sir Alex Ferguson may have more time on his hands now to devote to horse racing, but Martin O'Neill intends to remain in the company of thoroughbreds for a bit longer.

Sir Alex Ferguson may have more time on his hands now to devote to horse racing, but Martin O'Neill intends to remain in the company of thoroughbreds for a bit longer.

No-one could have empathised more with Manchester United's manager on Tuesday night than his Celtic counterpart. Jose Mourinho was a source of great irritation to O'Neill long before he even surfaced on Ferguson's radar after the "cheating" that blighted last season Uefa Cup final.

The scars of Seville have taken a while to heal. Being jettisoned back into the Uefa Cup after Champions' League qualification was snatched from them by Lyon, no longer seems like a mere consolation prize, now that Barcelona, and a few others, are on the horizon.

O'Neill would love to take his team back to the final this season, but he knows that to do so will probably be a much harder task than last year. Particularly, as some of the finest European bloodlines stand in Celtic's way.

"The Champions' League is where we all want to be," he said. "However, that does mean that the team in the Uefa Cup are less valued. There are eight teams from this competition that could be in the Champions' League. Valencia, Roma - who we could meet in the quarter-finals - and Barcelona could easily step up.

"Barcelona have the name and the pedigree, and they also possess the current form. It is a pity we could not have met them 10 weeks a go when their morale was low, but now they are in a great run. However, we have earned the right to be here.

"I was both galled and pleased when I saw that Lyon won the other night to reach the quarter-finals. That could have been us. Manchester United were minutes away from the last eight and VfB Stuttgart, whom we also beat in last season's Uefa Cup, were in with a chance right up until the end against Chelsea.

"The bigger teams have better chances because they have the greater resources but in any given two-match tie, there is always a chance. Who would have thought that Manchester United ... would be knocked out by Porto, but they were."

However, he will have to overcome Barcelona without the key influence of Chris Sutton, his course-and-distance man. The former Blackburn and Chelsea striker has found the net 25 times this season, but has failed to shake off an ankle problem that kept him out of last Sunday's Scottish Cup win over Rangers. That compounds the recent surgery undergone by John Hartson and Shaun Maloney, which means that Henrik Larsson will again operate in a lone role in attack just as he did in the Old Firm encounter.

"It is a blow," said O'Neill. "Hopefully we will have Chris back for the second leg. When I took him off in Teplice, I thought he would struggle to face Rangers last Sunday, but face Barcelona. You could see against Rangers, how much we miss him from our game. He holds the ball up so well and has great ability.

"I do not want to put the weight of the world on Henrik Larsson's shoulders. A fortnight ago, we had three partners for Henrik and it's unfortunate that all three are missing for this game. If we can give ourselves a chance for the second leg and Chris comes back, you never know. I believe that if we are still in the tie, then we are capable of scoring in Spain."

Barcelona do not have any such problems. Indeed, such is the rich vein of form surrounding the Catalan club at the moment that Frank Rijkaard is able to leave Patrick Kluivert on the bench, allowing the coach to maintain his faith in Javier Saviola up front.

However, the talisman is Ronaldinho, whom O'Neill admires greatly. "He is playing wonderfully right now and has that bit of arrogance that great players possess," said the Celtic manager. "He is entitled to his top reputation. He is alongside David Beckham, though Ronaldinho goes past people much better. We will not man-mark him because great players always find space, but it will be a team effort that we're focusing on." There will not be a spare seat in the house tonight. Celtic's 53,000 season ticket holders snapped up their seats as soon as the draw was made and there was no public sale of tickets. Barcelona have been well-briefed by their former player, Frank de Boer, now playing across Glasgow at Rangers, though the Dutchman's assessment that Celtic are only a "big physical side" was a touch undiplomatic.

Celtic made a habit last season of making people - step forward Graeme Souness and Blackburn Rovers - eat their words. Perhaps, Barça's old boy will be wading through his second helping of humble pie in five days.

Celtic (probable 4-5-1): Douglas; McNamara, Balde, Varga, Valgaeren; Agathe, Lennon, Petrov, Pearson, Thompson; Larsson.

Barcelona (probable 4-3-3): Valdes; Olguer, Puyol, Marquez, Navarro; Cocu, Xavi, Motta; Garcia, Saviola, Ronaldinho.

Referee: W Stark (Germany).