Although faced with an insurmountable task when they found themselves two goals down after just 16 minutes, VfB Stuttgart bravely fought back to beat Celtic FC 3-2, but it was not enough. The Scottish team won 5-4 on aggregate and go through to the quarter-finals where they will meet Liverpool FC in their second all-British tie of the season, having already beaten Blackburn Rovers FC.
How much the German team's victory at the Gottlieb-Daimler stadium had to do with Celtic trying to sit on their lead was hard to say, but, all said, it was an excellent effort. In fact Celtic had defended superbly until seven minutes before half-time, when a defensive lapse coupled with the fact that they were momentarily down to ten men allowed Christian Tiffert the chance to halve the deficit with a header.
Celtic regained their defensive poise at the start of the second half and appeared to have the opposition completely disillusioned - as well as their fans - when suddenly an equaliser after 75 minutes by the man of the match, Aleksandr Gleb, after a sweet one-two with Ioan Ganea, enthused the Germans with new life.
Where before Celtic had comfortably kept Stuttgart at arm's length, now they were hanging on for dear life. When ten minutes later Gleb raced beyond the Celtic defence and fired a shot against the inside of a post which rebounded back into play, it seemed Stuttgart would not even allowed the consolation of victory on the night. But the German team kept beavering away and with three minutes remaining a peach of a pass from Gleb found the substitute Michael Mutzel and he finished with a panache which had not always been evident in much of Stuttgart's work.
Experience and nous
Even allowing for their poor defending in the last quarter of an hour, it was a first-class effort by Celtic against the third best team in 1. Bundesliga. With Henrik Larsson still some way from returing to the side after breaking his jaw, they were able to welcome back John Hartson from suspension and the Welshman's experience and nous played a big part on the night, though not as big a part as Didier Agathe, who had a role in both the opening goals.
It was from his cross that Hartson glanced a header to the far post. Alan Thompson, who is more notable for scoring goals from long range with his unerring left foot, this time launched himself horizontally to send a fine header into the corner of the net.
If that strike, after 13 minutes, was like a blow to the solar plexus for Stuttgart, a second goal three minutes later ought to have had them out for the count. Agathe made a wonderfully determined right-wing run which ultimately left Chris Sutton with a simple tap-in. "It's clear," said Felix Magath, the Stuttgart coach, "that we cannot replace important players like [Marcelo] Bordon and [Fernando] Meira [both suspended], but that was not the reason for the two early goals."
'Like an eternity'
Martin O'Neill, the Celtic manager, blamed "a loss of concentration" and the fact that Thompson was off the field injured when Stuttgart scored their first goal. "But we were still well in control of the game," he said. "The last 20 minutes seemed like an eternity. It's a wee bit of shame that we've lost the match, but we're through and we've scored away goals, so we haven't been bad against what I consider a very good team.
With the teams we've played, we've punched above our weight."
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