O'Neill aims to emulate Stein

Calum Philip
Saturday 22 March 2003 01:00
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The afterglow of Anfield will take some time to remove yet, while Celtic spent yesterday savouring the joy of reaching their first European semi-final in 29 years, they are now hungry to taste the reward.

Martin O'Neill's side were paired with Boavista in the Uefa Cup semi-final, avoiding Lazio and Boavista's neighbours Porto in the draw which was made yesterday in Switzerland. The manager knows that he will never have a better chance of following in the footsteps of Jock Stein and leading his side to a European final.

O'Neill tried to dampen down the optimism sweeping the east end of Glasgow by reminding a press conference yesterday that Boavista went further than Celtic in last season's Champions' League. However, many fans have already begun to fix up flights for Seville, where the final will be staged on 21 May, as they do not want to miss out.

Celtic won the European Cup under Stein in 1967 and were runners-up in 1970, before reaching the semi-finals in 1972 and 1974, and O'Neill admitted yesterday that "we have put ourselves back on the European map."

The Portuguese side will come to Parkhead on 10 April, with the return on 24 April, repeating the scenario which has seen Blackburn Rovers, Celta Vigo, Stuttgart and Liverpool fall victim to O'Neill's remarkable side. "I never felt the tie was over because Liverpool came here and drew 1-1," he insisted.

"However, I was worried about their stamina after such a hectic 12 days when we've faced two games against Rangers and two with Liverpool... I have to praise my players because I was taken aback by their desire at Anfield.

"They lifted themselves after defeat in the CIS Cup final by Rangers last Sunday. We knew we had to score at Anfield or we were out, and though we rode our luck at times, Alan Thompson's goal gave us something to hang on to. Then John Hartson came up with that fantastic goal to seal it. It was a great night for myself and the club, but also a great night for Scottish football. We have beaten one of the best teams in Europe, who won the Uefa Cup two years ago, and we've also put out top teams from Germany, Spain and another Premiership team in Blackburn."

As Neil Lennon said of his team-mate two weeks ago, after the Welshman's 23rd goal of the season beat Rangers and put Celtic back into the race for the Premier League title, Hartson has nothing to prove.

"A lot of people thought I was coming up here for a soft option, but I came because this is one of the biggest clubs you can get," Hartson said. "Celtic should be in this position every year, because it has a huge following. Now we are beginning to fulfil the club's potential.

"The boys said in the dressing room this morning that we would like Boavista, so the draw has been kind to us but we have earned it with the sides we've knocked out. Beating Liverpool was special for me, because I used to support them as a kid because of Ian Rush. We've done nothing yet," O'Neill cautioned, "but these players believe in themselves. If we'd gone out at Liverpool, it would have been a good run, but it would soon have been forgotten. But everyone wants to go further."

Celtic's Uefa Cup run has earned Scotland an automatic Champions' League place for 2004-2005.

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