So near and yet so far. That was the story for Celtic FC as they came within a goal of reversing their 5-0 deficit against FC Artmedia Bratislava in the return leg of their UEFA Champions League second round qualifier last night.
The Glasgow side had given themselves a seemingly impossible task following their worst-ever performance in Europe last Wednesday, yet they almost pulled off the greatest comeback in the competition’s 50-year history.
Having conceded another four goals in their first league game of the season against Motherwell FC on Saturday, the home supporters turned up with a sense of trepidation more than expectation. Manager Gordon Strachan set a target of two first-half goals to keep the miracle alive and his players did not disappoint.
Alan Thompson’s spot-kick broke the deadlock on 22 minutes after Ondrej Debnár had hauled Maciej Zurawski back inside the area, before the second arrived on the stroke of half-time when John Hartson pounced on Ross Wallace's header to drill the ball past Juraj Cobej.
The Celtic fans now started to believe and eight minutes after the restart the miracle looked well and truly possible when defender Stephen McManus headed in a third with the aid of a deflection. Suddenly the roles had been reversed and Artmedia now looked as likely to capitulate as spectacularly as Celtic did in Slovakia. Cobej needed to make two exceptional saves to deny substitutes Shaun Maloney and Craig Beattie, but he was helpless to stop Beattie's powerful header eight minutes from time.
By now Parkhead was shaking to its foundations as the crowd sensed that the impossible may be possible after all. Artmedia coach Vladimir Weiss later declared the atmosphere, "the best I have ever experienced, worth nine extra players to Celtic", but despite their best efforts Celtic could not find the elusive fifth goal that would have taken the tie into extra time and written a new chapter in European football history.
"I thought we were going to do it at the end," said captain Neil Lennon. "We gave it everything we had, but to go out of Europe so early is sad. We lost this in the first leg and we only have ourselves to blame. That is the most galling thing about it all."
Strachan will take heart from his first victory since taking over from Martin O'Neill, but it will be of scant consolation to a club who have become accustomed to Champions League football and the financial rewards of up to €15m that come with it. However, despite a remarkable comeback the disastrous first leg in Slovakia proved to be too much of a handicap, leaving the manager and his players to concentrate on regaining the domestic title.
"I said to the players afterwards that they came close to the biggest nights of their careers," said Strachan. "To be remembered for overcoming a five-goal deficit would have been tremendous. The biggest disappointment for me is that this was my first experience of Europe with Celtic and now I will need to wait until next year for another chance. But I think our performance proved we are good enough to win the title back from Rangers [FC]."
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