Neil Lennon’s side propelled themselves through to the knockout stage of the UEFA Champions League for the first time in five years on a night which saw Aiden McGeady make his return to Celtic Park. The Celtic youth product was back at Parkhead for the first time after being sold to the Russian outfit for 9.5 million pounds in 2010 and was looking to avenge his side’s 3-2 loss at the Luzhniki Stadium in October.
Neil Lennon stuck with his much trusted 4-4-1-1 European formation. Beram Kayal came into the side to replace the suspended Victor Wanyama and partnered Scott Brown in what is perhaps Celtic’s most industrious central midfield pairing. Emilio Izaguirre made his European return following a month out as Adam Matthews dropped to the bench. James Forrest was still out with a hamstring injury which meant Commons started on the right with Mulgrew on the left and Samaras playing as the link between the midfield and Gary Hooper.
For Spartak, Sergey Pesjakov returned as Fraser Forster’s opposite number after a lengthy spell on the sidelines. Aiden McGeady’s appearance would be delayed, as he started on the bench due to a knee injury.
Opening Half Hour
Spartak started the game well maintaining the majority of the possession but not creating any genuine threat towards Fraser Forster’s goal until Kallstrom fired a left footed shot just wide after a nifty one – two move. Celtic appeared nervous on the ball in the opening minutes; the same trait that let them down in Lisbon against Benfica. However, they were able to build pressure in the Spartak end with a series of corners that eventually came of nothing. The opening goal of the game came as a gift to Gary Hooper who pounced on Insaurralde’s whiffed clearance after a desperate outlet pass was attempted by Samaras. It was this type of finishing which has made Gary Hooper one of the best poacher’s in British football at the moment. His first touch was a low driven volley to the bottom right hand corner of Pesjakov’s net.
After the opening goal Spartak settled into even more of a rhythm as Celtic continued to struggle with ball retention, however few chances followed. Emmanuel Emenike looked especially dangerous for the Russian side while crafting a solo effort after leaving Efe Ambrose for dead with a quick drop of the shoulder but blasted well wide. The Nigerian continued to look a threat and the Celtic defense quickly noticed this, attempting to double team him while in possession, while the exact same could be said of Georgios Samaras at the opposite end.
Following Spartak’s period of greater possession they began to cause Celtic trouble with Emenike, Kallstrom and Ari continuing to run at the Celtic midfield and back line. Kayal was shown a yellow for a bad challenge on Emenike following five collective fouls in the space of four minutes from the Hoop’s midfield pairing.
The attention Emenike attracted from the Celtic defense allowed space for Ari on the right. The Nigerian shrugged off Kayal before waiting for Efe Ambrose to close the space down. Ari was left with no one around him after Izaguirre failed to recover from a gallivanting run up field and he deftly lifted the ball over Forster. It was a goal that was easily preventable and perhaps needed only better communication among the back four to resolve the issue, but it was a deserved Spartak goal nonetheless.
Celtic Dictate Tempo
On the other side of the break Celtic began to settle into their system as the moved the ball well and had the majority of the territorial advantage. Samaras deserves a large part of the credit for Celtic’s ball retention increasing in the second half. His ability to run at the Spartak defense created much more space for the midfield four, particularly Commons, Kayal and Brown. The Greek international stuck mostly to the left touchline and linked well with Charlie Mulgrew who moved more inside when Samaras was in possession. Kayal sat in the midfield hole, allowing Commons and Brown to get further forward and provide service for Hooper.
Below on the left shows the average position of Celtic player’s in the first 30 minutes. The blue line represents Samaras, alongside Gary Hooper. The image on the right shows average positions in the first 30 minutes after the half. Samaras has drifted out into a wider role with Beram Kayal (the red line)sitting in a holding role, thus allowing the rest of the midfield and the full backs to push on.
As a result, Celtic began to create quality chances with Samaras pinging a first time volley off the upright and Hooper getting a headed attempt on target midway through the second half.
Aiden McGeady came on for Ari in the 61st minute and was given an applause by the Celtic support, however, he struggled to get into the game. With Samaras continuing to drift out to the left, McGeady often found himself pinned back as he tried to help contain Samaras and Mulgrew as well as deal with the overlapping runs of Emilio Izaguirre. Adam Matthews replaced an injured Lustig at right back in the 71st, but Neil Lennon’s first tactical sub came in the 74th, when Lassad came on for Beram Kayal. With the score still 0-0 at the Nou Camp and sensing a need to attack, this move effectively changed the Celtic formation to a 4-2-4. Charle Mulgrew moved inside to couple Brown with Commons and Samaras pushing on even further.
The effect of this allowed Celtic to pin the visitors back, creating a system whereby the two central midfielders could switch the ball to the wide men who got crosses in. Samaras collected a Kris Commons cross near the byline and was brought down inside the box in the 81st minute. Whether Samaras went to ground too easily or not is of definite debate but there is no doubt that Celtic were justly rewarded for their boldness and aggressive tactical changes in the game; something they have been criticized for lacking throughout the campaign.
Commons converted the penalty and Kallstrom was dismissed minutes later for showing studs on the winger’s knee. Spartak’s night was summed up when McGeady hacked down Samaras and received a yellow, effectively allowing Celtic to keep the ball in the corner for the remaining two minutes.
There were positive signs from a Spartak team that has struggled deeply of late, however the end to the match showed their frustration at the truly crisis stricken state of the club. However, they can take inspiration from the performance of Emenike who looked the part throughout the entire match.
From a Celtic perspective, progress to the knockout stage may just mark one of the greatest achievements for the club since the Lisbon Lions won the competition in 67. In an era where money is more important than ever and where rich owners are buying success, Celtic and Neil Lennon have shown that they have the talent, the heart and the proper system in place to compete with such big spenders.
Man of the Match: Georgios Samaras
Photos belong to Celtic Football Club and UEFA