August 21, 20:45. It's half-time in Sweden. Celtic are 1-0 up but have been completely outplayed by a plucky Helsingborg side. It is only because of the heroics of Fraser Forster that Celtic are still in the game (a phrase that would be often repeated in the subsequent months).
My trip to Sweden, which so far had consisted of a solid lasagne and a two mile walk to an overrated statue, was threatening to take an ominous turn. Thankfully, Celtic's performance did improve, and eventually they would qualify for the group stages of the Champions League. For many, myself included, one of the central aims of our entire season had been completed. As long as we were committed and won one of our home games, the players and fans could be proud. With failures against Utrecht, Braga, Sion (sort of) and others, expectations were not high. When the draw was announced, ITV had the audacity to tweet "Bye, bye Celtic. They've drawn Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow". Words that embodied the arrogance of the English press rather than the scale of the challenge. Expectations levels were low, but writing us off entirely seemed entirely unreasonable.
Fast-forward to 5 December, and Celtic need to better Benfica's result to progress to the last 16 of the Champions League (take that ITV). With Barcelona having changed all eleven of their players, the odds of the Eagles getting a result in the Camp Nou had increased significantly. The night begins and Celtic start nervously. Unbeknown to those at Parkhead, Benfica were missing chance after chance against a poor Barcelona side. Then, against the run of play, Hooper put Celtic one up, pounces on a defensive error. It was only his second goal outside the box for Celtic, with the other having sealed the championship last year.
With Benfica still failing to take their chances in Barcelona, we all began to believe. But belief was dangerous. The dejection that follows false belief is all the more painful. An outward pessimism is conveyed by many fans, again myself included, in a vain attempt to cover up an increasing belief that qualification was achievable. However, Spartak level just before half-time, Ari chipping Forster, and beating a hapless Wilson. At half-time, it looks as if Benfica will qualify with Celtic going out courtesy of a poorer head-to-head record.
The Hoops come out for the second side looking a better team. The threat of Spartak's standout player, Emineke, seems less severe, and in truth, it looked like Spartak were willing to settle for a draw. Celtic began to push forward with chances falling to Samaras and Mulgrew. Then, a ripple of excitement filters through the stadium. Was there a goal in Catalonia? Unfortunately, Barcelona had not scored, but instead the curse of the 'phantom goal' had struck Celtic Park again.
It is now twenty minutes to go, Benfica are the favourites to progress. Lennon decides that his team cannot rely on Barcelona to beat Benfica, the job needed to be done at Celtic Park. He takes a holding midfielder off for a striker. A bold decision, and indicative of a man whose tactical nous has improved immeasurably since his days as the club's caretaker manager. With ten minutes to go, the scores are level. Commons hits a cross-field ball to Samaras. He controls it beautifully and then falls to the ground. Penalty. Lennon cannot bring himself to watch, he knows that this Celtic team has made missing critical penalties a habit. Commons, a man guilty of misses in the past, steps up.
The ball smashes against the bar ... then drops below into the net. 2-1. Celtic are looking comfortable, but what news is there from the Camp Nou? Messi is through, the keeper clatters into him, but he stays on his feet, preferring an attempt on goal to a penalty. Darn these continental players who refuse to go down easily. Then a few minutes later, with stoppage time almost up, Benfica are through. Cardozo is racing away. One-on-one. Celtic hearts are set to be broken. Then, inexplicabily, he dallies over the opportunity, the ball falls to Josh, but he can only blast it over. The full-time whistle goes in both games. The impossible dream is alive.
Celtic's season will now be considered a tremendous success, regardless of the trophy count in May. The youngest squad in the entire Champions League, has amassed ten points, and will be competing with Europe's elite in February. They have achieved what alluded Manchester City and Chelsea. Regardless of the opponents, no team will fancy sampling the Parkhead atmosphere. Shall we start booking our tickets for Wembley?Suggest a correction