For just the second time in the competition’s history, both Rangers and Celtic have made it through to the Champions’ League proper. In store for both sides are some tricky ties and I do wonder if either team has it in them to reach the last 16 again.
But first, a round-up of their third round qualifying matches. Rangers traveled to the Marakana in Belgrade with a 1-0 lead from their first leg, courtesy of a Nacho Novo goal. The little Spaniard was an unused substitute as Rangers, clearly playing for a draw, ground out a boring 0-0 match. For any fans who made the trip to Belgrade in the hopes of a cracker, they would have been sorely disappointed.
Anyone at Celtic Park the following evening for their second leg against Spartak Moscow, however, was treated to surely one of the best qualifying matches ever played. In the early stages, neither side seemed particularly worried about defending, and the end-to-end action saw Spartak flash a cross narrowly wide, followed up by Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink going close from a Shunsuke Nakamura corner.
Artur Boruc, still being linked with a move to Arsenal, was in fine form in the first half, making an excellent save from Dimitri Torbinsky as the shot was cleared off the line by Lee Naylor. The end-to-end action kept going but on 24 minutes Spartak were lucky to get a penalty after a Boruc save fell to the ground and whacked off the arm of Gary Caldwell. There was nothing he could have done to get his arm out of the way and surely the cries of the Russians must have been what influenced the ref’s poor decision.
Luckily for Celtic, Roman Pavluchenko’s penalty had everything except the accuracy, and the shot slammed off the left post and back out into play. Three minutes later, Celtic were in front. A poor clearance from Roman Shishkin fell to the feet of Scott McDonald and the Australian buried the ball into the back of the net from 12 yards.
The Russians, demoralised from the penalty miss and conceding a goal, found themselves back in the tie after sloppy play in the Celtic defense allowed Pavluchenko to make up for his penalty miss by volleying into the back of the net from a corner.
Clearly upset by the goal, Boruc had to be separated from Lee Naylor on the stroke of half time. Gary Caldwell showed a clear head to get in between the pair as they squared up in the Celtic goal area. The referee decided enough was enough and blew the whistle to draw the first half to a close.
Spartak started the second half in a much more positive manner and the back and forth play continued. With not long to go, an out of sorts Nakamura missed three great chances to finish the game off, first failing with a lob over the Croatian ‘keeper Stipe Pletikosa, then missing a one-on-one situation before hammering a shot over the bar.
Celtic continued to pressurise the Russian defence and when Vennegoor of Hesselink was put clean through, Austrian cap Martin Stranzl lunged at him, resulting in the defender being sent off for preventing the goalscoring opportunity. Celtic still couldn’t penetrate the Moscow defence however, and the match inevitably moved into extra time.
Even with all the tired legs, neither side let up. Although Spartak were clearly happier to play for penalties, they had an excellent opportunity denied by Boruc and still looked dangerous going forward. Then Celtic were handed a penalty following another incident of handball in the box. There was no disputing this decision, however. vennegoor of Hesselink stepped up and, clearly going for power rather than accuracy, saw his shot cannon off the crossbar.
After a night of two missed penalties both sets of fans were surely wary of a penalty shootout. Nakamura capped off what could only be described as an ‘off night’ by missing his penalty, but Caldwell, Vennegoor of Hesselink and subs Derek Riordan and Maciej Zurawski hit the back of the net and when Maxim Kalinchenko stepped up for the final penalty, he saw his shot saved by the excellent Boruc and the tie was over. Celtic were in the Champions League.
Even the monotony of today’s draw in Monaco couldn’t take away from the excitement of Old Firm fans as they waited expectantly to see who they’d face. Celtic were placed in the third pot and Rangers in the fourth, meaning that there were any number of dangerous teams either side could have faced, including the four English sides, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal, all top seeds. Celtic were the second side out of the third pot and found themselves paired with two sides they took on last season. The holders, AC Milan, and Benfica. Shakhtar Donetsk made up Group D and Celtic face some difficult trips to Milan, Lisbon and Donetsk in their bid to reach the last 16. They will be confident of taking something from Milan, with whom they played out draws in the second round last season, before a Kaká goal in extra time sent them home. Benfica and Shakhtar are also two daunting prospects, and while Celtic’s home record against both is good, their away record leaves a lot to be desired.
Rangers couldn’t have asked for a tougher group as the fourth seeds in group E. They’ll take on 2006 winners Barcelona, as well as Lyon and Stuttgart, champions of their respective leagues in France and Germany. While Rangers will harbour hopes of a last 16 appearance, I would expect third place to be a more realistic aim.
No matter what happens though, it’s a pleasure as a Scottish football fan to see both halves of the Old Firm in Europe’s elite contest once again. I hope the fans are in for some thrilling matches over the next few months.