There has been a really different vibe surrounding Celtic and their European games this season, with supporters, players and manager alike sharing a quiet confidence before all of our games this season, especially the away fixtures.
This is not based on arrogance, or a lack of respect to each of the opposition that we have faced. Instead this is a group (players and management team) that know what they are capable of and are desperate to make their mark on the fantastic history of our club.
Celtic’s financial strategy has changed greatly since the days of MON. We now have a focus on buy low, buy hungry, develop and deliver which is reaping huge dividends. We have a nucleus of experienced players in Brown, Commons and Samaras that perfectly dovetail the younger bhoys in the team.
Lots of this team are destined for bigger leagues than the SPL and they are relishing the opportunity to show what they can do on the CL stage, aided by the massive buzz that they are experiencing playing for a huge club like Celtic, with its fanatical support.
The team lined up almost as expected, Mulgrew in place of Ledley the only real talking point. I expected this to produce a 4-1-4-1 as in previous away ties but yet again our bright young manager had something up his sleeve.
Scott Brown was deployed behind Gary Hooper in a 4-2-3-1 formation that allowed him to work about the pitch and stop play being developed from within the Spartak half. It also allowed him to join attacks much quicker and unsettle what was a shaky defence, superbly supported by Samaras and Commons.
In true Celtic style, the game developed through a cycle of highs, lows, brilliance, incompetence and controversy. Despite this new found pre-match confidence, Celtic started the game very poorly. You will struggle to see so many misplaced 10 yard passes from professional players as we witnessed in the first ten minutes.
However, the malaise was soon discarded and a solid (if slightly contentious) tackle by Wanyama saw him win the ball from Kallstrom and feed Lustig on the right. Lustig swept in a perfect low cross and it was left to Gary Hooper to expertly guide the ball past the goalkeeper.
The goal totally changed the course of the game and we saw Celtic control the game now, comfortably dealing with the Spartak attacking threat and counter attacking up the park with variety and confidence.
Celtic were then denied a great chance to double their lead when Commons was tripped in the box after beating his man. It was not clear to see in real time but the reaction of Commons and the subsequent replay showed it to be a clear penalty.
We often talk (rightly) about the standard of referees in Scotland but I have to say that the most eccentric and awful refereeing performances are generally saved for European games. This was one of those occasions as the first 25 minutes of the game saw Scott Brown struck in the face on at least two occasions without action taken.
Wanyama was then booked due to a Spartak player tripping over his own feet on top of the Commons penalty incident. Unfortunately, the officials then got a decision right by ruling Hoper to be marginally offside after heading in a wonderful Samaras cross.
At this point life was good. I was enjoying a few pints with the Wishy Mad Squad and making plans for our trip to Lisbon. Then @AupaCeltic became all misty eyed and declared that this team was capable of achieving anything it wanted to and was probably going to win the CL.
No sooner had those words been spoken and the away day curse was back with a vengeance. Celtic uncharacteristically went backwards with the ball whilst in possession, and the ball ended up at the feet of Forster.
Despite having time to take a touch he hoofed the ball back up field where possession was quickly lost. The ball forward from Kallstrom to Ari was delightful, the touch across to Emenike brilliant and Spartak were back in the game, just a few minutes before half time.
The momentum in the game had changed and early in the second half we saw poor defending from Celtic allow Spartak a second goal, eventually finished by Emenike for his second goal of the night. Typically this would be a signal for a Celtic collapse but this team are made of stronger stuff.
Celtic stuck with their tactical strategy and soon began creating opportunities. Mulgrew released Hooper whose pace and positioning but him clean through on goal, where he was sure to score until the last man clinically took him out.
A clear red card to everybody, except the referee it seemed who took an eternity to do his job and show the card. Forrest soon replaced Wanyama and Celtic are back in the ascendency. A superb 5 man move saw the ball end up with Forrest whose initial shot was brilliantly saved but rebounded off the Spartak captain to bring Celtic level.
History was being made before our eyes but with Celtic you can never be sure until the end. I expected to see Miku or Watt join the attack for the last 10 minutes but Lenny stuck to his plan and the more conservative decision was taken to replace Mulgrew with Ledley.
Super Joe had a great effort tipped over as the clock ticked down to full time, with all of us hoping for lots of additional injury time in order to get the win. And then it happened, a superb cross from the impressive Izzaguire was met by the perfectly manicured head of Samaras and the points were in the bag, finally, at last, we had done it.
BrummieBhoy Internet Bampot MOM award for Spartak game goes to Gary Hooper.
A couple of other observations from the game. Firstly the strength of the Celtic bench, especially given that Matthews, McGeouch and Lassad were not involved in the 18. It was as strong as you can remember in recent times and we had game changers available in a few positions.
Secondly, the impact of Samaras once again in this type of game. Not everybody’s cup of tea, but hugely intelligent and influential as the game wore on. I firmly believe if he and Hooper had been fit to start against Benfica we would now have 6 points in this group.
Celtic returned to domestic action against Hearts on Saturday, looking to build on their recent run of fine form. James Forrest replaced the injured Scott Brown as Celtic reverted to a typical 4-4-2 formation.
Hearts have had an up and down season so far and were comprehensively beaten last time out by Kilmarnock, following a hat-trick from former Celt Cillian Sheridan. This, added to Celtic’s recent excellent form pointed to a comfortable home win for the hosts.
However, this was not quite how things turned out. Celtic had a decent chance early on through Mulgrew but the best chance fell to Paterson of Hearts. Driver looked to have fouled Wilson but play was waved on and the ball was squared to Paterson who shot narrowly wide.
Samaras was unlucky to hit the post following great work from Commons on the left, a redeeming feature throughout the game. The same pair linked up beautifully again shortly afterwards and this time Samaras made no mistake slotting the ball through the keepers legs.
Mulgrew had given way to Ledley, after failing to recover from a knock picked up clashing with the Hearts keeper (who had to be stretchered off). The additional first half injury time saw Commons show great skill and determination to almost double Celtic’s lead, somehow the ball staying out.
Hearts deserve credit for their counter attacking football, always looking to get at Celtic and they caused the home defence plenty of discomfort throughout the game. Taouil particularly impressed me, always wanting the ball, beating players for fun and trying to link up play. It was fortunate for us that he dropped deeper the longer the game went on, reducing his influence on the game.
Hearts enjoyed good possession in the second half but didn’t create the quality of chance that would be needed to bring them back into the game. Celtic introduced Kayal and Miku in the second half, another indicator of the squad strength just now.
Celtic had a couple of chances to double their lead, Commons yet again going close after more superb skill. Samaras then linked up with Miku in the last minute and should have got a touch on the final cross to steer the ball home.
Three important points for the Bhoys to finish off a superb week for the club. Another very pleasing aspect of the afternoon was the return to form of Izzaguire, his third consecutive impressive game, showing plenty of the form that saw him win Player of the year trophies, long may it continue.
BrummieBhoy Internet Bampot MOM award for Hearts game goes to Kris Commons.
We now see another break due to the international calendar. Much has been made of the potential inclusion of Hooper, Forster and Commons into their respective National Team squads. Whilst I am pleased for Forster on a personal basis, I would be happy if none of our players were selected for duty to prevent any further unwanted injuries.
Liam (twitter @BrummieBhoy)