Shattered Celtic search for strength

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The Independent Online

Cruella Seville, one inspired Scottish tabloid labelled it, but Celtic must swiftly put behind them the injustices, real and imagined, of their 3-2 defeat by Porto after extra time in the Uefa Cup final.

Following a night of extraordinary noise and numbers, colour and controversy, yesterday's retreat from Spain was an occasion to put the sombre in sombrero. Celtic - both team and supporters - now needs to concentrate on the less exotic climes of Kilmarnock. One last, great effort might just ensure that their most epic campaign since Jock Stein's managerial pomp 30 years ago does not end without a trophy.

Celtic will step out at Rugby Park on Sunday for their final Scottish Premier League fixture knowing that even a handsome victory may not be enough to retain the title. They stand level on points and goal difference with Rangers, but the Ibrox side, who face Dunfermline at home, have scored one goal more. For the second time in five days, Martin O'Neill's men may be outsiders looking in on a blue-and-white parade.

Forgetting the events of Wednesday and focusing on a tough-looking game against opponents with an outside chance of qualifying for Europe might prove difficult. Johan Mjallby, Celtic's Swedish defender, looked weary and deflated when he said: "To be honest, I don't know how we'll lift ourselves. I suppose we'll just be professional. We've got to get back on track and turn in a very good performance.

"Of course we are mentally and physically tired," the 32-year-old added. "But once the referee blows his whistle on Sunday, the adrenaline will start flowing again. I can guarantee we will be up for it."

O'Neill's reaction to Porto's success, and particularly his comments about the referee, Lubos Michel, may land him in disciplinary trouble with Uefa, European football's governing body. The Celtic manager remarked pointedly that the 35-year-old Slovak was "very, very young" and needed to "learn lessons".

While O'Neill was careful not to claim that the costly extra-time dismissal of his defender, Bobo Balde, was unwarranted, he cited examples of why he was dissatisfied. "Four seconds before Balde's mistimed tackle, Henrik Larsson had been fouled on the edge of their box, but he waved play on," he said, moving on to Porto's protracted goal celebrations. "When someone scores, the kick-off shouldn't be five minutes later."

Uefa's communications director, Mike Lee, warned that it would be studying O'Neill's comments before deciding what action, if any, to take. He said: "Players on both sides need to look at themselves. There were two red cards [Porto's Nuno Valente was sent off shortly before the final whistle] that were totally justified. We feel the referee had a good game on the whole, but at times the attitudes of both teams were not the best.

Much of O'Neill's ire centred on diving and feigning injury by Porto's players. He evidently regarded Celtic as moral victors, insisting they had been "immense in defeat" and deserved better than to lose to a 115th-minute goal.

The first assertion is unarguable, though for all Celtic's spirit and the finishing brilliance of Larsson, Porto were the more skilful and dangerous team over the two hours. O'Neill's side conspicuously lacked a midfield player who could find space to make telling passes in the way that Deco, a No 10 in the great tradition of the game, did for Porto. With such a player, Celtic might have been reliving the glories of 1967. Instead, the evening ended in a manner eerily reminiscent of their second European Cup final, the narrow defeat by Feyenoord after extra-time three years later.

The one area where Celtic were undisputed winners was the enhanced reputation of their followers. Some 35,000 were inside the stadium (20,000 more than their ticket allocation) and almost as many outside.

Uefa's Mike Lee said: "The Scottish fans had a drink or two and a party, but their behaviour was magnificent. It was a message to the whole footballing world that you can travel, take a beer, and have a good response with other fans from Europe."

Deep into the night, thousands of Celtic fans milled around Seville, thronging bars or searching forlornly for taxis to take them to their beds, either in local hotels or further afield in Fuengerola or the Costa del Sol. Many more slept off the defeat and the drink in parks, on traffic islands and even on concrete pavements.

The defiant humour of the Celtic fans is obviously contagious. On this reporter's flight yesterday, a pilot with a plummy English accent drew groans when he announced that we were passing over Oporto, but guffaws as he added the deadpan punchline: "Unfortunately, our plane has no facility for emptying toilets while in the air."

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