Nothing beats gubbing Rangers.
Don’t get me wrong, I used to love it when we got one over them. Or preferably more than one. I was as delighted as everyone else when Chris Sutton chipped in a whitewashing winner, I celebrated by falling about when Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink got that late winner on our way to winning three in a row under Gordon Strachan, I even once wrote Star Trek fan fiction and gave two characters the names Burley and Lambert after a certain New Year derby win.
But ever before their demise six years ago I always enjoyed something else even more.
A big European night.
I didn’t get to many Celtic games until the Martin O’Neill years, so it wasn’t really until the UEFA Cup match at home to Bordeaux that I first got to experience You’ll Never Walk Alone properly in person. The half time singing in that match will probably live with me forever, even though I’ve heard it sung louder or emotionally in games since then. Liverpool on the road to Seville and Barcelona after terrorist attacks in Spain earlier that day come specifically to mind.
Knocking Barcelona out of the UEFA Cup in 2004 was possibly the best experience I ever had at a Celtic game. It’s still the best result I’ve seen us get away from home in Europe, the only other time we didn’t lose when I’ve been there was the other game in Barcelona that year!
But it’s a Celtic Park where the big European night really stands out. After Shunsuke Nakamura’s free kick beat Manchester United and sent us through the last sixteen of the Champions League, we probably sang You’ll Never Walk Alone an octave too high! But that was the emotion of the night, coupled with the Artur Boruc penalty save just before the end.
And no one will forget the night Tony Watt’s name reverberated around Europe.
Match day four on this season’s Europa League group campaign brought something new to the table. For the first time, Celtic’s “disco lights” were turned on. For me, the show itself was a little flat, probably more to do with the music choice than the lights to be fair, but what followed was something new. The lights were kept down, and the disco lights did their magic as the stadium sang out You’ll Never Walk Alone.
It immediately became one of my favourite renditions. There was something special about that atmosphere, where the stadium did it’s thing and we did ours.
Then the team put in one of the best performances we’ve seen at home in Europe in a long time. RB Leipzig were “nae mugs” and we still managed to beat them 2-1. It wasn’t the scoreline that impressed, it was the whole performance. We worked hard to earn that win, especially after it looked like we were going to drop points and we roared straight back into the lead.
That victory wasn’t enough to give us a head to head advantage over RB Leipzig, but coupled with home and away victories over Rosenborg and the fact that Red Bull Salzburg have won all of their games so far means we go into this final match three points clear in second place.
Now we just have to avoid defeat against that 100% recording Salzburg team.
Rosenborg are out, we’ll all be very surprised if their game against Leipzig is anything other than a German victory. Given that’s the case, they’ll draw level on points with us if we lose to Salzburg and they’ll overtake us with the better head to head.
It means that we have things in our own hands, but it does also mean there’s a temptation to play it safe and not take any risks. A draw is enough to see us through, but I don’t think anyone wants to see us play for that draw – Brendan Rodgers included. I’d imagine tonight’s mantra will be simple.
Play for the win, take the draw.
For Salzburg, top spot is already secure and they’ll be seeded in the draw for the last 32. They’ll want that 100% record though, and I’m sure their bosses will be desperate to ensure that they do the favour for RB Leipzig. Thankfully they didn’t do them any favours on match day five and so the stitch up never came, but they know they can still help tonight.
At the weekend, Salzburg drew 2-2 away to Flyeralarm Admira. Yes, that’s a real name. That draw is one of only five they’ve had this season, two of which came in Champions League qualifying against Red Star Belgrade and saw them lose on away goals, while the other two came in October away to LASK Linz and at home to Wacker Innsbruck.
Every other game they’ve played this season has been a win. They haven’t actually lost a game since a 4-0 defeat on the last day of last season away to Austria Vienna. Before that, it was the semi final of the Europa League against Marseille!
If Celtic can pull off a win tonight, it will be an amazing result. The fact that Salzburg do concede goals can give us heart, but then Rosenborg scored twice at home on match day four and still lost 5-2. They then played four games without conceding before Saturday’s 2-2 draw.
We also know that in the game in Austria we were giving Salzburg a lot to think about in the first half. We took and early lead through Odsonne Edouard and maybe should have done more to extend that. It all fell apart in the second half and we went on to lose 3-1 in the end, but there was a lot to look at in that game to give us hope for tonight.
The real trick will be keeping Salzburg out at the other end. Red Star Belgrade managed it back in August, and if we can match that tonight then we know we’ll go through regardless of what we do at the other end. Unfortunately we won’t be doing it with the help of Dedryck Boyata. His partnership with Filip Benkovic was looking pretty good until his injuries in the League Cup final, so we’ll need to hope that Jozo Simunovic can fill in there instead. So far it’s looked alright, and indeed it was a misjudgement from Benkovic, not Simunovic, that conceded the penalty on Saturday.
The bigger concern is probably the right back role. Neither Mikael Lustig nor Cristian Gamboa have been particularly impressive in Europe this season unfortunately, but one of them will play tonight and hopefully this is the night we’re reminded of what they can do at this level.
Up top, it will almost certainly be Odsonne Edouard now that Leigh Griffiths has been given time off from football for a while. Leigh has had issues for months now, and the time has finally come that he has to take a step back to deal with those properly. I wish him all the best in doing that, and hope that when he’s ready he can return to the first team and continue adding to his more than a century of goals for the club.
Edouard will now be our sole striker for the remaining six games of the year, and while that will be a difficult and exhausting task we know that the midfield are playing their part in getting goals too. Ryan Christie can’t stop scoring, while James Forrest has again hit double figures for the season. Tom Rogic and Callum McGregor haven’t been finding the net much lately but we know what they’re both capable of, whilst Scott Sinclair got that crucial goal in Trondheim on match day five.
With Olivier Ntcham and even the captain Scott Brown struggling to get back into the team at the expense of those currently first choice, it says a lot for the quality we have in the middle of the park. We’ll need that particularly tonight, but also in the five league games we have in the run up to new year.
Salzburg might be the best team we’ll face this season. Europa League semi finalists last season, they’re in great form this season and will be hoping to do even better this season.
But Celtic Park might be their toughest venue of the season too. In full flow, it’s one of the most intimidating arenas in Europe. RB Leipzig admitted it was too much for them. Salzburg won’t make that mistake, but you can be sure we won’t be making it easy for them to focus. Celtic Park will be rocking with a capacity crowd, all pulling for Celtic to get the result that will see us in that draw for Europe after Christmas.
Krys (Twitter @krys1888)