It hasn’t really been said since the epic run to the 2003 UEFA Cup final, but Celtic have hardly put a foot wrong in Europe this season.
That year under Martin O’Neill, the Bhoys were beaten by Jose Mourinho’s Porto in the final at a time when Celtic were able to punch above their weight in Europe, but that glorious run has often seemed a lifetime ago.
Ever since, European campaigns have been largely underwhelming affairs, where the odd memorable night (the win over AC Milan under Gordon Strachan at Parkhead, the victory over Manchester United in 2006) have been punctuated with disappointing performances and an inability to win away from home.
But this year, much to the delight of manager Neil Lennon and all connected with the club, Celtic look to have turned a corner. How much the chaos that Scottish football finds itself in domestically (Rangers’ demotion and so on) has focused Celtic minds on Europe is difficult to say precisely, but there is no doubt that the lack of Old Firm competition has led to Europe becoming even more of a priority for Lennon and so far this year, his side have played with exactly that attitude.
But it isn’t just the importance of a Champions League run that has brought the best out of Celtic so far. There has been an impressive understanding of what playing European football is about – keeping things tight. Celtic have conceded just one goal in five games in Europe this season and Lennon’s men have been excellent on the break, appearing much more tactically savvy than in years gone by.
But all of this will be put to the test when Celtic travel to Russia to face Spartak Moscow in an early-evening kick-off on Tuesday. That is reflected in the odds on offer with bwin: Moscow are 1/2 favourites, with the draw at 31/10 and Celtic the 21/4 outsiders and those odds are understandable, even taking into account the Bhoys’ improvement.
That’s because Russia has been a notoriously difficult place to go for British teams in the Champions League over the years, even for the finest sides. Lennon has acknowledged that a trip to Spartak is a step up in class when compared to their previous assignments (HJK and Helsingborgs) and when you see that Spartak have won six home games on the bounce, it is hard to disagree.
But that won’t change Lennon’s approach and he will be looking to avoid defeat on the road rather than going gung-ho for the win. That will be the case initially, anyway, and the 2/1 on the game being 0-0 at half-time is seriously tempting.
Spartak were unlucky to lose to Barcelona at the Camp Nou on Matchday 1 and will see Celtic at home as the perfect chance to pick up three points. But Celtic, with a 0-0 draw at home to Benfica, would happily take a point and will set out to do just that.
And with their renewed resilience, the Bhoys can do enough to make it until the break with their clean sheet intact.
Recommended bet: Spartak Moscow v Celtic to be 0-0 at half-time @ 2/1
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