Comparing the transfer approach of Neil Lennon and Brendan Rodgers at Celtic
It has all been one-way traffic in the Scottish Premiership over the past eight seasons or so, with Celtic establishing themselves as the undisputed powerhouses in Scotland ever since the financial crisis at Ibrox hit Rangers hard on the face.
With Rangers failing to reinstate their challenge for trophies following their return to the top-flight in 2016, Celtic’s unparalleled dominance has reigned supreme in recent years.
Neil Lennon, who returned to the club for his first managerial stint in 2010, and then Brendan Rodgers, who took charge in 2016, guided the Hoops to eight straight domestic titles, albeit Ronny Delia was also at the helm of affairs for a while prior to Rodgers’ arrival.
Celtic won three back-to-back Scottish domestic titles under Lennon but it was under Rodgers that they completed the historic ‘treble treble’, starting from the 2016-17 to 2018-19 season, thus marking one of the most glorious periods ever in the club’s history.
Rodgers certainly achieved a lot more on the pitch when compared to his predecessors before leaving for Leicester City in February 2019, only to be replaced by club-legend and former manager Neil Lennon.
Well, it is a no-brainer that Rodgers gave the fans at Parkhead a lot to cheer about and while the Hoops never really made much of an impact in the European competitions, they hardly left any silverware on the domestic front unconquered, ranging from the league title to the Scottish Cup and the Scottish League Cup.
The critics might argue that there wasn’t enough competition to halt Celtic’s juggernaut under Rodgers but that kind of dominance was truly phenomenal, nevertheless.
However, with all due respect to whatever Rodgers achieved on the pitch, it would be fair to say that his approach in the transfer window was a lot different from Lennon’s and didn’t really work in accordance with the club’s structure and organisation.
A look back at Neil Lennon’s recruitment policy from his first managerial stint at Celtic
To justify this statement, let us look at the kind of change that Neil Lennon brought about at Parkhead when he took over as the permanent manager prior to the start of the 2010-11 season.
Seemingly unhappy with the commitment levels of the existing set of players at the club, Lennon opted for a massive squad overhaul and plucked out some relatively unknown and unproven players from the far corners of the world.
The summer of 2010 saw the arrival of players like Beram Kayal, Emilio Izaguirre and Gary Hooper for thrifty amounts, while experienced and proven veterans like Cha Du-Ri, Daniel Majstorovic, Charlie Mulgrew, as well as Joe Ledley, all came through the door on free transfers.
Fraser Forster was also brought in on loan from Newcastle and later signed permanently, with the towering English shot-stopper going on to set a record for clean-sheets in Scottish football.
All the aforementioned players went on to earn plenty of plaudits for their impressive displays and most of them established themselves as mainstays of the club’s first-team for years to come.
Adam Matthews and Mikael Lustig were signed on free transfers in the summer of 2011 and we all witnessed the kind of impact that they had in the subsequent campaigns.
Not to mention Victor Wanyama, who arrived as a complete rookie from Belgian outfit Beerschot in the same transfer window. Celtic pulled off another massive bargain in the January window with the signing of playmaker Kristian Commons from Derby County.
Equally, Lennon’s expertise in the transfer market saw Celtic bring in the likes of Tom Rogic and Efe Ambrose in the summer of 2012. Both players went on to establish themselves as the key driving forces behind Celtic’s dominance.
Just to remind the fans, Virgil van Dijk arrived at Celtic from Dutch club Groningen in the summer of 2013 when Lennon was in charge and we all know what followed.
Celtic were pretty much in the driver’s seat on the domestic front by then and the January transfer window witnessed Lennon pull off another masterstroke with the signing of Leigh Griffiths from Wolves.
Well, he might not be at the top of his game any longer but his monumentous feat of scoring 31 goals in the 2015-16 league campaign is still likely to be fresh in the memories of the fans.
How Rodgers went about things in the market
Now, let us shift our focus to how Brendan Rodgers went about things in the transfer window.
It is obvious that each manager has his own way of building a squad when he takes charge of a new club and the motive of this discussion is not to criticise Rodgers’ transfer dealings during his glorious spell at Parkhead but to simply focus on the completely different approach that he adopted in the market.
As opposed to Lennon, who had to put in a lot of work in order to assemble a new-looking Celtic unit back in 2010-11, Rodgers inherited a good set of proven and established players at the club.
That, however, didn’t stop him from making a few signings in his first summer, as the former Liverpool boss brought in the likes of Kristoffer Ajer, Moussa Dembele and Scott Sinclair.
Both Dembele and Ajer proved to be massive bargains for Celtic, with the latter still very much a key figure at the back, whilst Sinclair is still racking up the goals and assists in the top-flight.
Rodgers’ first flop signing turned out to be Ivorian midfielder Eboue Kouassi, who arrived from Russian club Krasnodar in January 2017 for a fee of £2.8million. Kouassi’s stint at Celtic has proven to be an ill-fated one, with recurrent injuries and inconsistencies stalling the Ivorian’s progress at Parkhead.
Looking at Celtic’s dealings in the summer of 2017, Olivier Ntcham arrived from Man City for £4.5million as a marquee signing, while his teammate Patrick Roberts also joined on loan.
Both of them would go on to have contrasting futures at Parkhead, with Roberts taking Scottish football by storm and proving himself to be an influential figure in the club’s attacking ranks, whereas Ntcham faded away after a promising start.
One cannot help but feel that Celtic haven’t really got the most out of the money that they had spent to bring Ntcham to the club despite the Frencham teasing the fans with his glimpses of brilliance.
Odsonne Edouard, who had initially arrived on loan from PSG, went on to become a fan favourite due to his goalscoring exploits in the 2017-18 campaign but Rodgers took everyone by surprise when he convinced the board to splash out a club-record £9million to sign the French striker permanently in the summer of 2018.
Also, the acquisition of Marvin Compper in January hardly made any sense given that the German didn’t play any significant role in the remaining games, whilst £1.5million was probably too much to spend on Jack Hendry, who came in as a future prospect at Parkhead.
The marked difference between the two
Well, these figures might seem like a drop in the ocean to the fans in the Premier League but in all honesty, money doesn’t flow the same way north of the border and those kinds of transfer fees are still considered as massive in the Scottish top-flight.
Undoubtedly, both Rodgers and Lennon have been successful managers at Celtic, but the main question is – has the latter shown a greater level of acumen, wisdom and shrewdness in his transfer dealings?
To put things into perspective, it is a no-brainer that Lennon brought success to Celtic by spending a significantly less amount of cash as compared to Rodgers.
Lennon, who had carved out a big reputation for bringing in quality players on free transfers and for thrifty amounts during his first managerial stint at Parkhead, apparently has a good knowledge of the lower leagues and we have seen over the years that very few of his transfers have failed to pay the dividends.
It is clear that Rodgers spent quite a lot even on project players, the latest of them being the likes of Maryan Shved and Vakoun Issouf Bayo in January 2019, while Lennon always seems to know somebody who would come in for the same amount of money and play a big part in the first-team right away without spending too much time on the bench. And that kind of an approach certainly suits Celtic a lot more.
What Edouard has achieved at Celtic is similar to the heroics of Alfredo Morelos at Rangers, leaving many to wonder whether the Hoops could have brought in a player of the same quality for a much lower fee.
Has Edouard matched the exploits of Gary Hooper and Leigh Griffiths? Likewise, has Ntcham bettered the returns of someone like Kris Commons in a Celtic shirt?
Well, that hasn’t been the case so far. While the French pair does have the quality to go on and hit great heights in the future, one should not forget that the two other players mentioned above arrived at Celtic for ridiculously low transfer fees when Lennon was in charge.
Yes, it is true that Lennon has also opted to spend big on Christopher Jullien and Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo this summer but that can be seen as a desperate measure given that the Hoops were struggling to find replacements for the likes of Benkovic, Boyata, Lustig, Gamboa and Izaguirre.
Maybe Neil Lennon knows that it is impossible to cope with so many departures without splashing the cash.
All in all, Lennon has proven himself to be a shrewd operator in the transfer market when compared to Rodgers, and that makes him a better fit for Celtic’s structure and organisation.
He lives and breathes the culture at Parkhead and there can’t really be anyone better than him to take the club forward.
Griffiths and Bayo to lead the line? Predicted 3-4-1-2 Celtic XI to face Dunfermline Athletic in the Betfred Cup
Celtic FC vs Dunfermline Athletic prediction: Celtic FC line-up
Celtic will host Dunfermline Athletic in the Betfred Cup on Saturday after a shock defeat at the hands of Romanian outfit CFR Cluj saw their Champions League dreams come to an end.
It’s been a difficult couple of days to get through so far but the Hoops have to bounce back with a convincing victory over Dunfermline Athletic to change the mood.
Neil Lennon could ring the changes for the weekend’s Betfred Cup tie.
Goalkeeper Scott Bain picked up a hand injury during the loss against Cluj but finished the game. However, he has now been ruled out for upto two months.
Probable Celtic XI
Manager: Neil Lennon
Craig Gordon (GK)
With Bain out injured, Gordon naturally comes back in goal for Saturday’s game.
Christopher Jullien (RCB)
Jullien, surprisingly, didn’t start in the embarrassing loss to Cluj. However, he is expected to come back into Lennon’s starting XI.
Nir Bitton (CB)
Like Jullien, Bitton was an unused substitute in the last game. With the Europa League play-off game against AIK coming up, Lennon could freshen things up by handing Bitton a start.
Kristoffer Ajer (LCB)
Ajer struggled against Cluj’s attackers on Tuesday but Lennon is expected to stick with the towering Norwegian.
Anthony Ralston (RWB)
With Hatem Abd Elhamed yet to fully get into the grips of the Scottish league, the Celtic boss could hand an opportunity to Anthony Ralston on the right.
Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo (LWB)
Bolingoli has looked unconvincing at the back following his summer move from Austria Vienna. But he could be handed a chance to impress at left wing-back against Dunfermline.
Scott Brown (CM)
Celtic’s leader on and off the pitch, Brown continues to play every game for the club under Lennon, and should start.
Olivier Ntcham (CM)
Though the partnership Ntcham and Brown didn’t work out against Cluj, Lennon could go with the same pair on Saturday.
Ryan Christie (CAM)
Christie will add creativity and a punch of guile to the team. He will be raring to get on the score-sheet again.
Leigh Griffiths (LS)
With the Europa League game against AIK on the horizon, Lennon could freshen up his attack by bringing in Griffiths in place of Edouard.
Vakoun Issouf Bayo (RS)
Vakoun Issouf Bayo has struggled with fitness since joining the club in January. However, Lennon should give the pacey Ivorian a proper outing at home in the Betfred Cup game.
5 players since the turn of the century who have tasted success following the cross-border transfer from the SPL to the EPL
5 players since the turn of the century to have tasted success following the cross-border transfer from the SPL to the EPL
Over the years since the inception of the Premier League in 1992, we have seen players from England move north of the border to the Scottish Premiership with varying degrees of success.
Focussing on things since the turn of the century, the Scottish top-flight has become an escape route for players in England who fail to make the grade or want to resurrect their career by drifting away from the intense level of competition.
Yet, there have been instances when the sheer reputation and pulling power of Celtic and Rangers have prompted established Premier League players like Neil Lennon, John Hartson, Chris Sutton and Tore Andre Flo to fly north of the border with the hope of pursuing a successful career.
However, it is worth mentioning here that the likes of Celtic and Rangers often struggle to keep hold of some top-quality young talents when the Premier League clubs come knocking on the door with big-money offers.
We all know that money doesn’t flow in the Scottish Premiership as easily as it does in the Premier League, meaning that Celtic and Rangers, despite being massive clubs with a lot of history, cannot compete financially with the English clubs.
While a lot of players from English football, even the aged ones, move north of the border with a lot of success, not too many players manage to do the same the other way round.
Now, it doesn’t require a rocket scientist to figure out as to why this happens. Barring the obvious difference in the quality of football between the two leagues in question, the level of competition in English football is also quite high as compared to the Scottish top-flight.
Interestingly, there have been some marked instances since the turn of the century when players from Celtic or Rangers have actually made a cross-border transfer with a lot of success.
The most recent of those has to be Southampton’s acquisition of Stuart Armstrong from Celtic last summer and while the Scottish playmaker only chipped in with 3 goals and 2 assists in the Premier League this past season, it would be fair to say that he did reasonably well for an underperforming unit in his debut season in England.
Without any further delay, let us look at some of the success stories of players to have moved south of the border from the SPL to the EPL.
Only players who have moved from Scotland to England without any previous experience in any division of English football have been considered for discussion, which eliminates someone like Fraser Forster.
1. Virgil van Dijk
The towering Dutch centre-back has to be at the top of the list simply because he is the greatest cross-border success story ever. Van Dijk is very much a household name in Europe nowadays but he was a completely unknown commodity when Celtic purchased him from Dutch club Groningen in the summer of 2013.
The Dutchman has hardly looked back since then and established himself as one of the mainstays of Celtic’s backline over the course of his successful two years at Parkhead, guiding the Hoops to back-to-back Scottish league titles and the Scottish League Cup in the 2014-15 season.
As a matter of fact, van Dijk made it to the Scottish Premiership Team of the Year in each of his two seasons at Celtic.
Southampton manager Ronald Koeman was the man responsible for bringing him to the Premier League and the Saints splashed £13million to secure his services in 2015 and what followed is known to all.
Van Dijk established himself as one of the most consistent centre-backs in the entire division and outgrew his humble surroundings at St.Mary’s before earning a £75million move to Liverpool in January 2018, which made him the most expensive centre-back in the world.
His stay at Anfield has proven to be a resounding success, with the Dutchman playing a key role in Liverpool’s 2nd-place finish in the 2018-19 Premier League season and guiding them to their first UEFA Champions League triumph since 2005.
He has already played in two European finals and Jurgen Klopp will be hoping that there is a lot more to come from van Dijk in the upcoming campaigns.
2. Stiliyan Petrov
Stiliyan Petrov was hardly a superstar when Celtic brought him in from Bulgarian outfit CSKA Sofia back in 1999 but seven seasons of resounding success at Parkhead, which included four Scottish league titles, transformed him into a household name in Europe.
As a matter of fact, Petrov was a key figure in Celtic’s march to the UEFA Cup final back in 2002-03.
His consistently impressive performances didn’t go unnoticed from the teams south of the border and former Hoops manager Martin O’Neill was the man responsible for bringing the combative Bulgarian midfield enforcer to Aston Villa in the summer of 2006.
Petrov hardly had any problems dealing with the competitive nature of the Premier League and went on to establish himself as a cult hero at Villa Park, racking up a staggering 219 appearances for the Lions in all competitions over the course of six fruitful seasons before his career ended prematurely due to leukaemia.
3. Victor Wanyama
Wanyama was plying his trade with Belgian club Beerschot in the Belgian top-flight when Celtic snapped him up in the summer of 2011. That marked the Kenyan’s metaphoric rise in football from a complete rookie to a Premier League star.
The tough-tackling midfielder went on to win back-to-back domestic titles with Celtic and earned plenty of plaudits for his daunting and fearless displays, most notably scoring a powerful header to help the Hoops stun Barcelona in the 2012-13 UEFA Champions League.
Southampton splashed £12.5million in the summer of 2013 to bring Wanyama to the Premier League and he became the first Kenyan international to play in the top-flight of English football.
Wanyama proved himself to be a tailor-made fit for the Premier League and reached great heights over the course of his three-season stay on the south coast, making 97 appearances in the process.
Having helped Southampton to an impressive 6th-place finish in the Premier League in the 2015-16 season, Wanyama completed a transfer to Tottenham for a fee of £11million to fulfil his dream of playing in the Champions League.
In his first season in North London, the Kenyan established himself as one of the key figures in the midfield and operated as a part of manager Mauricio Pochettino’s double pivot midfield.
Wanyama’s influence has gradually waned over the past couple of campaigns due to his struggles with injuries but his cross-border success story remains truly an inspiring one.
4. Mark Viduka
Mark Viduka made his move to Celtic Park in December 1998 with a lot of goals for Dinamo Zagreb under his belt, and the towering Socceroos centre-forward proved his credentials very soon.
He stayed at Parkhead only for a single full season but that was enough for him to get his name into the history books, as the Australian international racked up 25 goals in 28 league appearances in the 1999-00 season, also winning the Scottish League Cup in the process.
Viduka’s stocks were rocketing sky-high after his goalscoring heroics at Parkhead. Leeds United manager David O’Leary was the quickest to react, snapping up the striker in the summer of 2000.
Viduka went on to establish himself as a bona fide goalscorer in his first season at Elland Road and struck 22 goals in competitions, including all four in a memorable 4-3 victory over Liverpool at home.
The Australian also racked up 4 goals in Leeds’ march to the semi-finals of the Champions League in his first season, which is still the record for the most number of goals scored by an Australian player in the Champions League.
Viduka’s incredible strike rate at West Yorkshire saw him finish with 68 goals in 158 outings before he made his move to Middlesbrough in 2004 following the financial crisis at Elland Road.
Leeds’ stay in the top-flight came to an abrupt end but Viduka’s success story didn’t. He went on to register 41 goals in 98 appearances at Teesside before a final swansong at Newcastle United.
He didn’t have the pace to bother defences but he certainly won a lot of hearts with his natural finesse and razor-sharp reflexes in front of goal.
5. Shaun Maloney
The diminutive 5ft 7in playmaker broke on to the scene at Celtic in the 2000-01 season under Martin O’Neill but he found regular minutes hard to come by in the subsequent campaigns and was used largely on a rotational basis.
Nevertheless, he spent seven seasons in his first stint at Parkhead and won four domestic league titles before O’Neill, then in charge of Aston Villa, brought him to the Premier League in January 2007.
Maloney’s stint at Villa Park proved to be a mediocre one as the versatile playmaker netted 7 goals in 33 appearances for the Lions in all competitions. He headed back to Celtic but his second stint at Parkhead coincided with Rangers’ dominance in Scottish football.
Maloney did return to the Premier League, however, with Wigan Athletic willing to offer him a return to south of the border. Maloney moved to Wigan in 2011 and he proved his critics wrong under the guidance of Roberto Martinez, as the Scotsman went on to play a key role in the Latics FA Cup winning campaign in the 2012-13 season.
He even pledged his loyalty to the club following their relegation from the Premier League and plied his trade in the Championship.
Maloney switched boats to join Hull City in the Championship following a brief stint at Chicago Fire in the MLS and subsequently went on to represent the Tigers in the Premier League before hanging up his boots.
A throwback to the past: Reliving Celtic’s glorious run to the 2002-03 UEFA Cup final
A throwback to the past: Reliving Celtic’s glorious run to the 2002-03 UEFA Cup final
Even since it came into existence, Scottish football has largely been a battle for supremacy between Old Firm rivals Celtic and Rangers, with both the clubs fighting it out to secure the bragging rights each and every season.
No team outside the Old Firm has won the Scottish league title since an Aberdeen side managed by the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson lifted the trophy way back in 1984-85, which pretty sums up the kind of stranglehold Celtic and Rangers have established on the domestic front.
Things have hardly been any different over the past decade or so, barring the fact that Celtic have now established themselves as the undisputed powerhouse in Scotland following Rangers’ downfall.
Rangers returned to the top-flight in 2016 after overcoming their struggles with insolvency and subsequent demotion to the fourth-tier back in 2012.
However, the Gers haven’t been able to oust their bitter rivals from the throne for quite a considerable time now, with Celtic’s triumphant Scottish Premiership campaign this past season being their eighth consecutive one.
The Hoops, in fact, completed a historic feat by claiming the ‘treble treble’ at the end of the 2018-19 season.
Despite that, however, Celtic have failed to repeat their past heroics on the European front and, in all honesty, the Hoops’ showings in the Champions League and the Europa League in recent times haven’t really been anywhere close to their domestic form.
The Hoops have made it to the last 16 of the Champions League on only three occasions in recent times – 2006-07, 2007-08 and most recently, 2012-13.
They competed in the Europa League last season but their adventure only lasted until the Round of 32 stage, where they bowed out without scoring a goal against Valencia.
It is a familiar opinion that Celtic’s European campaigns in recent years have all pretty much been sorry tales that the fans would like to forget.
Just to remind the fans of the current generation, Celtic do, indeed, have a rich history as far as European competitions are concerned.
Nowadays, it is common to see the Hoops go into a Champions League or a Europa League game as the underdogs despite their unrivalled dominance in Scottish football.
However, things were hardly the same back in the 1960s and 1970s when Celtic were right up there with the European powerhouses.
As a matter of fact, Celtic became the first British team to ever win the European Cup. The Hoops’ 1967 European Cup winning side came to be known as the ‘Lions of Lisbon’ for their heroics in Portugal against Inter Milan in the final.
Celtic emerged as runners-up to Feyenoord in the 1970 European Cup final before making it to the semi-finals of the competition in 1972 and 1974.
Sadly enough, things haven’t really been the same at Parkhead since Celtic last made it to the UEFA Cup final back in the 2002-03 season, when Martin O’Neill’s side, featuring several stars like Paul Lambert, John Hartson, Chris Sutton, Henrik Larsson and current manager Neil Lennon, came to be known as the ‘Bhoys of Seville’, despite losing to Porto in the final.
The new generation of fans will be hoping that Neil Lennon, who was a part of Celtic’s last prominent European campaign, can turn things around in his second managerial spell at Parkhead.
Nevertheless, it is worth taking a walk down the memory lane and revisiting Celtic’s glorious run in the 2002-03 UEFA Cup, which ultimately ended in heartbreak.
Celtic’s participation in the 2002-03 UEFA Cup came as a result of their defeat on the virtue of away goals rule at the hands of Swiss side FC Basel in the third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League.
The Hoops were guaranteed a place in the qualifying stages of the Champions League by the virtue of their triumphant domestic league campaign in the 2001-02 season but a defeat meant that they had to settle for a place in the UEFA Cup, which was later renamed as the Europa League at the end of the 2008-09 edition.
Celtic were drawn to face Lithuanian club FK Suduva in the first round of the competition and the Hoops were always going to be outright favourites against the minnows.
Henrik Larsson’s hat-trick, coupled with strikes from Stiliyan Petrov, Paul Lambert, John Hartson and Chris Sutton, helped Celtic to an emphatic 8-1 at Celtic Park.
With the tie done and dusted, manager Martin O’Neill fielded a rather weakened eleven in the return leg away from home, although Celtic still managed to bag a 2-0 victory.
Celtic’s fixture against English Premier League outfit Blackburn Rovers in the second round drew plenty of attention and a tough battle was expected to be on the cards given that Graeme Souness’ side were gobbling up the points on the domestic front.
Blackburn boasted of several stars in their ranks, including former Man United strikers Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke, as well as rising talent Damien Duff.
Celtic were completely outplayed by Blackburn in the first leg at Celtic Park but in a twist of fate, Henrik Larsson’s late goal five minutes from the whistle meant that the Hoops carried a slender 1-0 advantage into the second leg at Ewood Park.
Martin O’Neill did his homework ahead of the return fixture though, and Celtic showed a lot more quality on the pitch away from home.
Larsson’s early strike earned Celtic a much-needed away goal to stamp their authority and Sutton rubbed salt on the wounds of his former club to make it 2-0 midway through the second half, as Celtic progressed to the next round 3-0 on aggregate.
Celtic were paired to face Spanish outfit Celta Vigo in the third round, and as with both the previous rounds of the competition, the Hoops were drawn to play the first leg at Glasgow.
A see-saw battle in a tense encounter in Glasgow saw Larsson give Celtic a 1-0 advantage heading into the return leg in Spain, although the referee became the centre of attraction and controversy for his eccentric officiating, as Martin O’Neill received a two-match touchline ban for apparently no reason.
Celtic weren’t able to hit top gear in the second leg as an early goal from Jesuli brought Celta Vigo back on level terms. John Hartson somehow used his muscle power and marauded his way through the opposition’s defence to tilt the balance of the tie in Celtic’s favour.
Although Benni McCarthy’s goal handed Celta Vigo a 2-1 victory on the night, Celtic made it through to the next round on the virtue of away goals rule.
Following a narrow escape against Celta Vigo in Spain, Celtic were paired against German outfit VfB Stuttgart in the fourth round of the competition.
The Hoops were once again drawn to play the first leg at home and they were pretty confident about maintaining their perfect home record thus far in the tournament, although they lacked the services of Larsson and Hartson in the first leg.
Stuttgart’s Marcelo Bordon was sent off early in the fixture but that didn’t stop Kevin Kuranyi from opening the scoring at the 27th-minute mark. However, Celtic rallied on a went into the interval 2-1 up, thanks to goals from Paul Lambert and Shaun Maloney.
Faced with the daunting task of forging a comeback away from home and with ten men, Stuttgart showed plenty of character but that wasn’t enough as Stiliyan Petrov’s strike in the second half sealed a rather comfortable 3-1 victory for the Hoops.
Celtic carried a clear advantage into the second leg and goals from John Hartson and Chris Sutton in the first half sealed the tie, although the German side forged a remarkable comeback in the second half to register a 3-2 victory on the night.
The Hoops progressed to the quarterfinals with a 5-4 aggregate scoreline, nevertheless.
Celtic were drawn to face English Premier League heavyweights Liverpool in the last eight of the competition. The Hoops went into the tie as the clear underdogs for the first time in the competition, but what followed was truly remarkable.
Celtic began the first leg at Glasgow as the brighter of the two teams and Hartson’s effort inside the first minute of the game cannoned back off the post before Larsson netted from close range after exactly 100 seconds to put Celtic 1-0 up in the tie.
Emile Heskey’s equaliser in the 16th-minute drew Liverpool level but neither team managed to find a winner. Liverpool’s El Hadji Diouf came under scrutiny for spitting on a Celtic fan, which later resulted in a fine.
Liverpool carried a slender advantage heading into the second leg at Anfield, courtesy of a crucial away goal but two minutes before the interval, Alan Thompson’s low free-kick went beneath a leaping Reds wall and beat goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek.
Celtic carried a 2-1 lead on aggregate into the second half and Hartson’s brilliant swerving strike following a clever one-two with Larsson late in the game sealed a 2-0 victory for the Hoops, thus completing an upset for O’Neill’s side.
Celtic’s semi-final tie against Portuguese side Boavista proved to be a closer call than expected. The Hoops went a goal down in the first leg at home through an own goal from Joos Valgaeren before Larsson showcased his poaching instincts to draw them level just a few seconds later.
However, Larsson’s missed penalty kick in the 75th minute coupled with Celtic’s uncharacteristic poor finishing in front of goal let them down, as the Hoops finished the game 1-1, with Boavista carrying the advantage of having an away goal in the bag.
Knowing that a goalless draw would be enough for them to make it to the finals, Boavista adopted a defensive approach at home in the return leg, as Celtic found it tough to break the deadlock.
O’Neill’s side left it late but they found the breakthrough when it mattered the most. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, Larsson’s 80th-minute strike sealed the game and the tie for Celtic, thus guaranteeing qualification to the finals.
Having crossed a lot of hurdles on their way to the final – some with relative ease while others required a lot of doing, Jose Mourinho’s Porto stood between the Hoops and a first European victory since 1967.
A huge number of Celtic fans travelled to Spain to cheer for their club in the 2002-03 UEFA Cup final and while the result didn’t go in their favour at the end of an enthralling 120 minutes of football at the Stadio Olimpico in Seville, they had every reason to leave the stadium with their heads held high.
Chris Sutton played in Larsson brilliantly behind the defence but the Swedish talisman failed to make it 1-0 midway through the first half. Porto, however, weren’t far behind from opening the scoring themselves, as some brilliant creative play by Deco created plenty of opportunities for the Portuguese side.
Hoops goalkeeper Robert Douglas was called into action numerous times before Derlei finally made it 1-0 in favour of Porto at the halfway mark, scoring his 11th goal of the competition in the process.
The goal just at the stroke of the interval meant that Porto had the momentum on their side but Celtic responded just two minutes after the restart. Didier Agathe’s inch-perfect cross was headed in by Larsson, who scored his 10th goal of the tournament to put Celtic back on level terms.
A dramatic spell of play over the next two minutes or so saw both the teams find the net. Deco assisted Dmitri Alenichev to make it 2-1 in favour of Porto but Larsson once again headed in Alan Thompson’s corner to restore parity for Celtic. The scores ended 2-2 at the end of ninety minutes, and extra time was required to separate the two teams.
Celtic lost defender Bolo Balde for a second bookable offence early in extra time and that handed Porto the numerical advantage.
Derlei scored his second of the night and 12th of the tournament to make it 3-2 in favour of Porto at the 112th-minute mark. Although the Portuguese side had Nuno Valente sent off, they managed to hang on to the lead, and secured their first UEFA Cup crown.
Mourinho then went on to guide Porto to a UEFA Champions League triumph in the following season and announced himself on the big stage as a manager. Celtic hearts were broken but they had a lot of positives to take from the glorious run, nevertheless.
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