The good news – this is the third and final blog of my holiday exile. So, proper titles next week then! Indeed, as you read this I’ll be preparing to return from three glorious weeks of sunshine, Mickey Mouse, Tampa Bay Rays and all the other Floridian stuff I love to get stuck into while I’m away. The bad news – this blog is now so out of date I can’t possibly know what position either us or our opponents are in!
Motherwell got lucky last season. Yes, they earned their third place finish in the SPL last season by being pretty consistent against nine of their eleven SPL opponents. Actually, they were even more consistent against the two teams that finished above them. In eight games against Celtic and Rangers, Motherwell took just a solitary point from the twenty four possible. That point came at the eighth attempt in a 0-0 draw at Ibrox after both teams were already confirmed as finishing second and third.
However, with two Champions League places up for grabs and Rangers heading for the end of their 140 years of existence, the second spot couldn’t go to the team who finished second in the SPL. I’d like to say Motherwell happily stepped up to take it, but former Rangers player and current Motherwell manager Stuart McCall was practically crying as he said what a shame it was for Motherwell to be taking advantage of the Rangers situation.
Nevertheless, take it they did and Motherwell joined us in the Champions League third round draw, albeit on the non-champions much more difficult path. As a non-seed, they drew a difficult task in Panathinaikos, and duly bowed out of the tournament as quickly as they had entered it. Dropping into the Europa League playoff round they then drew Spanish side Levante and lost out again. Still, two ties and two home games will have done their finances some good even if they haven’t helped the coefficient whatsoever.
Last season’s wins at Fir Park weren’t exactly easy, but the 2-1 victory in November was a massive one in the tale of our season. It was at that point we found ourselves 15 points behind Rangers (with two games in hand) and even staring up at our opponents. Yes, we were third and Motherwell were second. Michael Higdon gave them the lead early in the game, but Anthony Stokes levelled the game shortly thereafter, and Gary Hooper’s winner gave us all three points. Our other visit to Fir Park last season saw us run out 3-0 winners. Although the scoreline sounds big, it took the introduction of Tony Watt to open the scoring for us and him – it was his first senior goal for Celtic. Watt would of course score again with Cha Du Ri getting a late third.
At the international break, Motherwell were sitting top of the SPL with nine points. Draws with Ross County, St Johnstone and St Mirren as well as wins over Kilmarnock and Inverness showed that Motherwell weren’t just going to be a one season wonder. By the time you read this they’ll have been to Dundee and Aberdeen as well. Higdon is still the player to watch out for, as he’s big and pretty good at ragdolling opposing defenders. He’s already scored a hat trick against Inverness this season too. Chris Humphrey will be another to look out for, if only because he was linked with us during the final days of the transfer window!
If Fir Park is a difficult place to visit – especially if their surface is doing it’s potato field impersonation which I’d hope isn’t the case in September but you never know – then it will likely be nothing compared with what is to follow. Having played Motherwell on Saturday the team will be heading off to Moscow to face Spartak in the earlier kick off time of 5pm CPT (12 ET, 9 PT). Earlier because that’s always the case with Russian games in the Champions League. Personally, I’m glad we’re going there at start of October and not any later. Moscow gets rather cold in the winter!
Of course, we’ve been there before. As I touched on when we played Benfica, Spartak Moscow were the team we played in qualifying in 2007/08. Paul Hartley was on hand to open the scoring in Moscow before Roman Pavlyuchenko levelled the game for the hosts. A late Scott Brown effort was inexplicably missed that could have given us a lead going into the home leg, but in the end that also finished 1-1 and we went through on penalty kicks – the only time Celtic have ever won a European penalty shootout.
The biggest worry on that day was the pitch. Not in a Fir Park sort of way, but more in an artificial one. The plastic pitch is always a talking point whenever it comes up whether it be East End Park’s experiment in 2003, Spartak’s 2007 pitch that was ripped up and replaced with grass before the Champions League final at the end of that season, or even HJK Helsinki’s pitch earlier this season. Yes, the home team in theory have an advantage, but given we have plenty of access to plastic pitches at Lennoxtown, it shouldn’t be any more of a concern than any other normal home advantage usually is. What may be of more concern is the one of our own doing.
When Aiden McGeady left Celtic in 2010, it saw the last of the Martin O’Neill era of players leave the club just as one of O’Neill’s brightest stars was starting his own managerial career. McGeady made his first team debut for Celtic at Tynecastle in 2004, and scored Celtic’s goal in a 1-1 draw. Between that and his final competitive appearance for Celtic – also at Tynecastle but this time in a 2-1 win in May 2010 – he played 251 times for the club and scored 37 goals, including that winner against Benfica I mentioned two weeks ago.
McGeady is one of the success stories of Celtic’s youth setup. As well as being a regular starter for Spartak Moscow, he continues to be a regular for the Republic of Ireland as well. But he is not the only threat that Spartak have. Although we’ll all be looking out for him, the likes of Kim Kallstrom, top scorer last season Emmanuel Emenike, and a host of Brazilians in Romulo, Ari, Welliton and Rafael Carioca, we’re sure to be up against another stiff challenge.
No more disparity with the seasons of football either. The Russians are as much into their current season as we are, having completed the transition from winter football to summer football earlier this year. That ultimately meant that it took 14 months to complete the last Russian season, starting in March 2011 and finishing in May 2012! Like our other opponents in the group, Spartak finished runners-up in the league last season. This season they had started well up to the international break, picking up four wins from six games and sitting in third. But again, I’ve no idea how they’ve done since.
Yeah, you’ll all be glad when I’m back and we can actually get back to doing this properly!
Krys (twitter @Krys1888 and @HHMParadiseRep