herald

Friday 18 April 2014

Desmond's steady hand paved perfect path for Paradise

JIM McGUINESS didn't pick a bad time to throw in his lot with Celtic, did he? Only a wet day in the place and he already has an epic memory or two to file away.

It wasn't particularly pretty against Spartak Moscow but Celtic got the job done and despite Barcelona's decision to strip out key men from their team to face Benfica, it all went right on the night.

After Lionel Messi's heartfelt support for Celtic, Neil Lennon might have expected something a lot more concrete on the pitch from Barcelona but he would be well advised to avoid the highlights of a game Benfica dominated.

Barca would have had some serious questions to answer from Celtic fans at the very least if the fate of the group was decided by their 'B' team.

In the end, Celtic's qualification for the knockout phase of the Champions League and everything which comes with it was about bloody-mindedness and good coaching.

Celtic's achievement is, first and foremost, Lennon's triumph. Nervous and jittery players made a good fist at handing Spartak Moscow the initiative in the first-half but everything changed at half-time.

As he has done throughout this journey, Lennon asserted his authority in the dressing room at the break and refocused a team which had few ideas and a serious dose of raw stage-fright.

In fact, very few ideas and not one player with enough individual talent to do something out of the ordinary and help Celtic break out of the cul de sac they were in.

Georgios Samaras is Lennon's wild card and a perfect illustration of the pool of talent he is working with. Awkward and often careless, he's a poor man's Ibrahimovic; a very poor man's Ibrahimovic.

Time and time again he gave the ball away but every so often, his mostly uncoordinated limbs work in concert and he becomes a threat or just as dangerous to defenders, a wet rag in the penalty area.

He didn't dive for the penalty which eventually sealed Celtic's qualification -- there was definitely contact -- but Samaras certainly used every inch of trickiness in his locker to extract his reward from referee Felix Brych.

But they deserved the win and they deserved to go through.

It would have been more than a bit ridiculous to put the best team in the world to the pin of their collar in the Camp Nou and Celtic Park and then fail to cash in.

Now, Lennon and his boss Dermot Desmond (below) have their hands on a Champions League slot machine and they still have a pull or two to go before the adventure ends.

Desmond doesn't often get the credit he deserves for the way he has looked after Celtic.

Contrast his methods with Roman Abramovich who has a lot more money, if that matters when you're dealing with billionaires, but a fraction of Desmond's understanding of how a club should be run.

Chelsea fans didn't abuse Rafa Benitez at Stamford Bridge last night and it was a first, but it would have been hard to find anyone dressed in blue with a smile on their face after a 6-1 win over Nordsjaelland and elimination at the hands of Juventus.

Sure, the circumstances Chelsea and Celtic work within are worlds apart but Vladimir Romanov has shown that even a backwater league like the SPL is not immune from the ravages of wealthy men from the old Soviet empire with too much money and very little common sense.



Debt

Desmond has run Celtic impeccably, building on the work done by Fergus McCann to relieve the club of a big debt to a point where they just about broke even last season.

He has the kind of money which would allow him to throw caution to the wind and bankroll a wild skite at the Champions League, a deluxe version of what Ollie Byrne tried to do at Shelbourne many moons ago.

But he's been doing exactly the opposite, sticking like glue to budgets and even selling players to balance the books.

He won't have to sell anyone next summer and he may even feel that it would be worthwhile to dip a toe in the January transfer market?

The right investment in two or three players might just extend Celtic's Champions League fairytale by another game or two.

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