x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Champions League: Hoops can dare to dream again

Celtic's victory over Barcelona has Scottish football smiling after a gloomy week, writes Iain Hepburn.

Celtic fans celebrate victory against Barcelona on Wednesday night.
Celtic fans celebrate victory against Barcelona on Wednesday night.

In 1887, in a church hall in Glasgow, an Irish Catholic priest working in the east-end slums of the city launched Celtic Football Club, with the aim of raising money for his Poor Children's Dinner Table charity.

Almost exactly 125 years to the day, that club produced one of the all-time shocks in European football after handing Barcelona their first Champions League group stage defeat in three seasons.

The unexpected result marked a moment of cheer for fans in a week which has done much to underline the downtrodden nature of football in Scotland, with Craig Levein being dismissed as the national coach and immediately reaching for his lawyers, while Scottish Cup winners Hearts issued a dire financial warning that said the club may not see out the month.

Celtic have come a long way since those humble beginnings, yet despite their remarkable and record-breaking success, they retain an underdog spirit born of a background of oppression and suffering.

Their greatest triumph against the odds came in 1967 as Jock Stein's side - all but one of whom were born within a 10-mile radius of Celtic Park - played with skill and verve to win the European Cup final against Inter Milan.

The appointment of Neil Lennon, a former Celtic captain, as the manager in 2010, after the brief but grim reign of Tony Mowbray, was greeted with scepticism even by many aspects of the Hoops support.

A divisive figure as player and coach, Lennon's time has been beset as much by off-field issues as on. Death threats ended his international career for Northern Ireland, a grim spectre that resurfaced last year when a crude parcel bomb was sent to him.

Despite the off-field distractions, Lennon has efficiently built a team that fuses the determination of his own playing style with the swagger of great Celtic sides gone by.

Against Barcelona, this determination and underdog spirit was evident as they weathered a storm and picked their moments to counterattack. Barca may have had control of the game, and 84 per cent of the possession, but Celtic's approach ensured they never looked short of confidence.

"I wanted them to do themselves justice and they have even surpassed that," Lennon said of his team after the match.

"They have just beaten the best team in the world and, on the anniversary of the club, it is a very special occasion."

While Lennon's tactical approach has impressed, his scouting network and eye for a bargain has produced a team capable of playing, and surprising, in Europe.

Both goalscorers against Barcelona were hardly bank breakers. The 21-year-old Victor Wanyama cost £900,000 (Dh5.2m) and the 18-year-old Tony Watt just £80,000, a sign of the depreciation in transfer values in Scotland a decade on from the days when Lennon himself cost Celtic upwards of £6m. Wanyama has been attracting covetous glances from Europe's larger sides, and his performances this season have both boosted his transfer value and made it harder for Celtic to retain him.

Equally key has been the goalkeeper Fraser Forster, signed permanently after two seasons on loan from Newcastle United. A string of impressive performances for Celtic have forced the young stopper into the England squad, a remarkable achievement for a player north of Hadrian's Wall. Yet much of the coverage of Celtic this season, both within and without Scotland's boundaries, has focused not on the team as much as the absence of their Old Firm opponents Rangers, for so long intrinsically linked with their Glasgow rivals but now plying their trade in Scotland's lowest division after financial meltdown.

Off-the-field questions over the financial stability of Scottish Premier League clubs, long-term, remain unanswered, and the perilous state of Hearts suggests things are not as bright as many hope.

But on the pitch, things are notably brighter.

Celtic have not had it all their own way in a Rangers-free SPL where, with fewer weekly drubbings being handed out, the quality and spirit of the rival sides has improved. With a quarter of the season gone, just three points separate the top five sides and an expected procession to the title for the defending champions now looks tougher than previously anticipated. The collapse of Rangers led many pundits to predict the beginning of the end of Scottish football. Without the Old Firm as a force, how could it go on? It would be disaster.

Celtic fans, however, already celebrating their noble history, are looking to the future with a touch more relish this week. A victory at Benfica on November 20 would secure their passage to the knockout rounds of the Champions League.

ihepburn@thenational.ae