Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wenger's warriors

I was one of the non believers who wrote off Celtic's chances of even reaching this stage.

They proved me wrong in Moscow. They won't prove me wrong in London. A 2-0 win at Celtic Park has sent Arsenal into the group stages of the Champion's League.

I thought there was a chance Celtic might do better in the first leg. But I also thought there was a chance Arsenal could run riot. In the end the nature of the goals - one off William Gallas' back and one Gary Caldwell own goal - will allow the Celtic die hard to dream of what might have been.

The truth, of course, is that in pure footballing terms Celtic are minnows compared to England's elite. Their exceptional home record against Anglo invaders is a testament to perseverance, passion and no little luck.

Arsene Wenger has been the perfect guest during his Scottish sojourn. Praising Celtic's fans making the right noises about the Old Firm's involvement in a European League and conceding Celtic had made it tricky:
It was a fierce battle. Overall we dominated the game, but Celtic were always willing and always fighting.

We scored two lucky goals. It was a big fight and we needed a strong Arsenal performance.
But in his heart he knew defeat was unthinkable. Just as Tony Mowbray must have known victory would have needed little short of a miracle.

As ever Wenger was able to turn off that incredible selective blindness to accuse the Celtic players of roughing up his superstars. If I was Celtic minded I'd be happy with that. If it means Tony Mowbray's much vaunted footballing philosophy is to be tempered by a dose of realpolitik then they should be in decent shape for the battles ahead.

Financially Celtic will be disappointed. But the woefully devalued Europa League offers a chance of redemption. The harsh reality is that Europe's second string is the stage best suited to the Old Firm at the moment.

The European playing field is no longer level. Unlucky goals or not there is not a football follower in the continent who will have been surprised by tonight's result.

Money talks. And for all their support Celtic do not have the cash to compete at the level they would like to. The last 16 of the Champion's League is an achievement not to be sniffed at. It's hard to see how either Old Firm side will go further in the near future.

For that reason tonight shouldn't cause the national wailing sparked by Aberdeen's defeat or Scotland's capitulation in Norway.

An Arsenal win was entirely predictable. There's no shame in that for Celtic. The only regret for the neutral is that the thrilling Arsenal of Saturday didn't make it north of Hadrian's Wall.