6.55pm Celtic Park Time, October 2nd 2012. French referee Tony Chapron blows his whistle for the final time in the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow to signal the end of not just the match, but of the single biggest monkey that Celtic have been carrying on their back for over a decade. Finally, a Celtic victory away from home in the Champions League proper.
I’ll be honest, this one has annoyed me for years for a variety of reasons. For one, Celtic not being able to win is always going to annoy me, but as a bit of a stat geek the numbers being thrown around regarding Celtic’s record has annoyed me too. Lets sum it up in one sentence.
“Celtic finally win away in the Champions League at the 21st attempt”.
I’ve heard that and variations of it from a variety of mainstream and internet bampot sources. There’s so many things wrong with it that it’s hard to know where to begin.
Firstly, we’ve won away in this tournament before. The Champions League is not a new tournament, it’s a rebranded and expanded European Cup. As has been pointed out, our previous away win in Europe’s premier competition came at Shamrock Rovers in 1986. So first off we’ve had more than 21 attempts!
Lets accept that it’s the Champions League era only though. That takes our first crack at the tournament to 1998, but we didn’t make it through qualifying. We did beat St Pat’s Athletic away, but of course qualifying doesn’t count in this statistic which means our fantastic 3-1 victory in the Amsterdam Arena in 2001 is always ignored. As are the 4-0 wins in Kaunas and Budapest in 2003, our 2-0 win in Moscow in 2009 (that’s now played three in Moscow, won two, drew the other by the way) and even our most recent victories in Helsinki and Helsingborg.
Actually, there’s where this statistic falls down. Victory in Helsingborg was technically part of the Champions League proper. Although considered qualification, the playoff round has all the trimmings – the advertising, the theme before the match and all. So to discount that one is somewhat inaccurate. But we’ll move on to the next issue.
How exactly did they arrive at the number 21? Well, that’s 20 previous matches in the Champions League proper that we’ve played away from home. Okay, but you’ve now conveniently included two matches in the last sixteen of the tournament. I actually saw some media outlets suggest this was our first group stage away win in 21 attempts! That’s just nonsense. We’ve played three Champions League group matches away from home in each of six seasons: 2001/02, 2003/04, 2004/05, 2006/07, 2007/08 and 2008/09. Of those eighteen games we lost seventeen. Amusingly the only place we went and didn’t lose was probably the hardest of the 18: the Camp Nou in Barcelona!
So what of the other two? Well the 1-0 defeat in Barcelona is fair enough, but Milan really skews this one. It was also a 1-0 defeat, but that took 120 minutes. At 90 minutes it was 0-0. Why can’t we count that one as a draw? All the other matches were 90 minute affairs! The group games can’t possibly go to extra time! For me, counting the last sixteen games while not counting qualification games is just being facetious and nothing more than conveniently inflating the figure. Of course, they always seem to manage to mention the Artmedia Bratislava game too. Never mind that it was also a qualifier, eh?
But then that’s what this has always been about. This statistic is nothing more than something to hit Celtic with. It was often shortened to “Celtic’s poor away form in Europe” to make it easier to say and sound worse. Sorry, but our away form in Europe didn’t seem so bad in 2002/03. We beat Suduva and Blackburn Rovers, we scored away goals against Celta Vigo and Stuttgart to get past them, then we beat Liverpool and Boavista to go to extra time in Seville.
This annoyingly specific statistic has been something that has been hanging over us for a long, long time. Everyone at Celtic has mentioned it at some point so we all know that it has played on the minds. We’ve even seen it play out in bizarre circumstances, right from the very first away group match.
Think about it. Yes, we’ve had a few hidings like in Oporto, Donetsk, Lisbon and Copenhagen. But we’ve also seen “injustice fall upon us in Turin” (in the words of Joe McKenna) as a diving cheat and an idiot referee robbed us of a hard earned point against Juventus. We’ve seen Harald Brattbakk come back to haunt us for Rosenborg. We saw a freak goalkeeping error deny us in Munich. We lost to ten men Anderlecht. We were denied a draw and qualification for the last sixteen by a soft, late penalty in Lyon. We’ve seen Filippo Inzaghi come on to beat us for Milan while we could only counter with Momo Sylla. We’ve seen Ryan Giggs get a penalty for Manchester United because his hamstring gave way. We’ve seen Dimitar Berbatov score TWO offside goals for United. Even in our last Champions League group stage away game before Moscow we saw a deflection and an own goal turn a win into a defeat in Aalborg. That’s one of three own goals Gary Caldwell has scored against us in the Champions League by the way.
It’s obvious that we’ve been unlucky in plenty of those matches. Some more than others. Frustratingly, I’ve seen suggestions that Celtic were lucky against Spartak Moscow. Eh? We were denied a penalty in the first half, it took a replay to show Hooper was marginally offside to deny him a second goal, Victor Wanyama was booked when a Spartak player tripped himself up, and the referee actually played on at first when Hooper was clearly fouled for a goal scoring opportunity and only gave the correct decision when his officials corrected him. The only luck I saw us get was when Forrest’s effort was saved, only to bounce off a defender and into the net. Even then the shot was still on target, so I’d say that was more the goalkeeper’s bad luck than our good luck.
But leaving all of that aside… isn’t it long overdue that we get some luck? Where’s our dodgy penalty? Where’s our offside goal? Where’s our former player haunting our opposition? That’s what we’ve had to deal with over the years. To be honest, I’m actually glad that we earned the victory in Moscow rather than having something dodgy go our way.
Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan never managed what Neil Lennon has achieved at what should be noted is actually his first attempt. There’s your new statistic – Lennon’s Celtic have played one and won one away from home in the Champions League group stages. I’m sure both of Neil’s former managers are delighted not only for their former player, but to see Celtic finally get rid of the monkey that haunted both of them in their tenure.
Maybe it will even get rid of a few other cheeky monkeys who persist on hitting us with misleading statistics. Or at least silence them for a while until they find something else to amuse them. I really do wonder sometimes if someone is actually trying out the infinite monkey theorem within Scotland’s written press.
Krys (twitter @Krys1888 and @HHMParadiseRep)