Sunday service draws a prayer from O'Neill

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The Independent Online

Martin O'Neill may have made a nice little sideline out of casting his eyes over international football, but the Celtic manager spent the final weekend of World Cup qualifying business nervously peering through his fingers.

Analysing games for the BBC is easy when none of your own players are involved but with a crucial Champions' League encounter at home to Rosenborg on Wednesday, O'Neill is now ambivalent about national service.

Of chief concern is Henrik Larsson, recovering from a heavy battering in last Sunday's victory over Rangers, whose goals have already secured a place for Sweden in next summer's finals yet who may be required to turn out today with his Parkhead colleague Johan Mjallby against Azerbaijan.

"It is difficult to spend a week away from the players because of international duty," said O'Neill last week. "Far be it for me to say that you should not play for your country, which naturally you should, but as a club manager I am concerned, especially since Sweden's game is on Sunday. It means we will not see Henrik or Johan until some time on Tuesday, which gives us less time to prepare for what we would consider to be a very important game in our own calendar and that is disappointing.

"Sweden have at least qualified, but the likes of Joos Valgaeren [Belgium] and Stilian Petrov [Bulgaria] are involved in very important qualifying games for their countries."

The fixture squeeze is, of course, a result of the cancellation of the opening Champions' League matches because of the terrorist atrocities which saw Celtic's Group E opener against Rosenborg postponed on 12 September. The Norwegians were already in Glasgow then and return knowing that O'Neill's side have since beaten Porto and scared Juventus.

And if Larsson – pursuing his third successive Champions' League goal – is Celtic's most precious cargo, then the man who scored alongside him in that controversial 3-2 defeat in Turin, Petrov, is not far behind. The young Bulgarian's ferocious right boot brought reward at Ibrox last weekend, just as it had in the Stadio Delle Alpi and against Dundee and Aberdeen. Four carbon-copy goals in four games from his free-kick routine with Larsson would be exceptional by anyone's standards, but for a player just back from a broken leg it is an astonishing resurrection.

Petrov, just 22, is defying doctors by simply playing after shattering his left leg in two places last March. He is three months' ahead of schedule, yet like Larsson – who suffered the same injury – he is now stronger than before.

When Rosenborg were originally scheduled to meet Celtic, Petrov's return was judged to be some time in the distant future, so much so that O'Neill happily allowed the midfielder to join Bulgaria's squad last month to help his morale as much as his rehabilitation.

Remarkably, Petrov actually started in World Cup ties against Malta and Denmark last month. It was as pivotal to Bulgaria's hopes as to Celtic's that he was negotiating safely a winner-take-all meeting yesterday with the Czech Republic in Prague.

Ironically, it is international football which dropped Petrov into Celtic's lap when his performance against England in June 1999 prompted Kenny Dalglish and John Barnes to pay CSKA Sofia £2.8m for the teenager.

Petrov is one of the few legacies from the Dalglish-Barnes era, yet even that was almost ruined. "When I started at Celtic I was at right-back," Petrov recalls. "That was where John Barnes put me. I was saying to myself, 'what am I doing here?' After a few games, I didn't play well and I heard people beginning to ask why they had bought me, which is not good for a young player.

"Then Martin O'Neill came and he spoke with me and asked me what was my best position, what I could do best, and he gave me a chance.

"Martin changed me, he gave me confidence, just as he did with Bobby Petta. The Celtic supporters were also really kind, especially after I broke my leg. They sang my name when Celtic won every trophy last season and made me feel I was not forgotten, so I want to pay them back now."

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