Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Celtic's Artful Dodging of United

We mentioned the word 'magic' yesterday in looking ahead to the remarkable events at Parkhead last night. There was no great insight there: for European nights at Parkhead, incredible events and the powerful, hypnotic force of the home support are de rigeur. But, after he had watched three Champions League points disappear with the flick of the magic wand that is Shunsuke Nakamura's left foot, Sir Alex Ferguson had about him that irritated and perplexed look of a man who couldn't quite believe his eyes.

Celtic's progression to the knockout stages is no illusion, however. Manchester United were indeed stripped of the win - or at the very least, the satisfactory draw - that they assumed was in their possession. The losing side, though, would, I'm sure, find the metaphor of magician for Gordon Strachan and his team unsatisfactory: United would probably prefer that of 'common thief'.

True United controlled most of the possession, had a couple of incorrect offside calls against them, were unfortunate with the concession of the crucial free-kick (United fans would use stronger terms than 'unfortunate', however after Ryan Giggs' penalty winning plummet during the first game, some parity can be said to have been achieved there) and missed a late penalty.

The English league leaders were markedly superior on the face of things - as they should be given the relative differences in transfer budgets between the two clubs. Not that Gordon Strachan would have exchanged, say, £18.6m Michael Carrick for £2m-odd worth of Nakamura last night. But Celtic - on the old-fashioned European home and away basis - have triumphed over United in this group. If not magic, then what?

The term that was doing the rounds of Celtic message boards last night - even during the fraught first half - was 'rope-a-dope'. The term made famous in the legendary 1974 'Rumble in the Jungle', in which Muhammad Ali defeated George Foreman through the absorption of seemingly interminable punishment before unleashing an astonishing knock-out blow late on, is incredibly apt for the events of last night.

Ali adopted the tactics because of Foreman's superior punching power: to have brawled toe-to-toe with the champion would have been suicidal for him. Similarly, Celtic took on a fighter last night with an infinitely superior array of punches, and one that would have left the home side on the floor in a bloody mess had they attempted to take them on in open combat.

Celtic fans, puzzled by Gordon Strachan's stolid midfield selection of Lennon, Gravesen and Sno alongside Nakamura, leaving the fleet-feet of Maloney and McGeady on the bench, watched the first half through gaps in their fingers, as United jabbed and toyed with their quarry. But United didn't have the big shot, the killer blow, or, at least, they could not get a sufficient view of the target to land it.

Like in Zaire in 1974, when Ali roused himself in the eight round to deliver a winning combination almost poetically sweet in its execution, Celtic's winning shot was sheer beauty. No doubt being viewed until worn today by Celtic supporters, the perfection of Nakamura's free-kick's trajectory bears countless repeats.

Strachan did not give himself full marks for his tactical set-up; rather he awarded 'five out of ten', due to the torridness of the first half. But while Celtic, tactics aside, undoubtedly played poorly in the first half, the manager's overall scheme proved a success.

Entering the game, Strachan will have been aware that a draw would be a useful result, sending his team to a probably eliminated Copenhagen still with a good chance of qualification. A defeat, however, would have been unbearable. Celtic would still have a chance of qualifying, but the sense that that prize was slipping inexorably out of their grasp would have been palpable; and given the club's woeful track record on their Champions League travels, the achievement of a win in Copenhagen would have been a considerable challenge.

Strachan therefore gambled on his team's character, their fortitude and their discipline. And it payed off.

For United, the loss - as with almost every English team's loss to Scottish opponents down through European football history - was a failure of will and character and a triumph of complacency and misplaced arrogance. The superior Premiership side failed to translate that fact into a victory, a football fundamental bemoaned by Ferguson after the game, and lacked the character to capitalise on their late reprieve. As has been angrily pointed out by United fans this morning, if captain Gary Neville was aware that Louis Saha's nerve was wrecked in the hostile atmosphere, then why was the Frenchman allowed to take the penalty kick?

The same complacency - not evident in their manager's selection, mind you - that did for them in Copenhagen now leaves them open to elimination after being in what seemed like an unassailable position. A few weeks ago we looked at how United had replaced Roy Keane in footballing terms, quite successfully on the face of it. They quite clearly haven't replaced him in the key sphere in which the spirit and soul of the team resides.

For Celtic, the outwitting of their rivals was a theft of kinds: but, as any professional criminal will tell you, the perfect crime requires planning, skill and no little nerve. Celtic will enjoy this booty for some time.

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Anonymous Paddy said...

Tom, your balanced criticism is maddening! Where's the blinkered triumphalism, what do i do with my sense of grievance!
As a united fan i guess i'll just do the sensible thing and blame chelsea for the whole grand larceny, indirectly responsible though they were for united failing to score, and the referee failing to see the lack of contact between poor vidic and that chelsea mole...
there's nothing for it, i'm going to have to give up watching football.. after the chelsea game... maybe...

11:50 p.m.  

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