After reaching the first knockout round last season before narrowly losing to the eventual winners AC Milan, Celtic FC's desire for a repeat run this time around showed at FC Spartak Moskva last night.
The Scottish side knew travelling to the Russian capital for the first leg of their UEFA Champions League third qualifying round tie would be a tricky task, not least with Spartak sitting on top of their domestic table after 20 games. But, after weathering an early storm from the home side, Celtic pushed on and scored a priceless away goal from Paul Hartley. Although Spartak were to equalise before half-time through Roman Pavlyuchenko, Gordon Strachan's men stood firm after that.
"We were playing a good side on a very unusual pitch and to play like that was fantastic," manager Gordon Strachan said. "They watered the pitch before the game and it took us a good 20 minutes to get used to the speed of the ball. Spartak are at the peak of their performance just now and have won nine of their last 12 home games and to come here and get a draw is excellent." The achievement is accentuated by the fact Celtic's four away games in last season's competition proper all ended in defeat.
One man who has also exceeded his showing from last season is Hartley, with the Scotland midfielder finding the net for the first time in Celtic colours since his January move from Heart of Midlothian FC. "It was a great performance," he said. "The boys did ever so well and it gives us a good advantage going into the home leg. It was a great ball from Scott McDonald and I timed my run well to head the ball in at the back post. We were disappointed to lose the equaliser just before half-time but it's still an excellent result for us."
Spartak were also involved in last season's competition and while they failed to get through from the group stage, Stanislav Cherchesov's men did do enough to move into the UEFA Cup after a 3-1 win at Sporting Clube de Portugal on Matchday 6. A similar result would be welcome at Celtic Park on 29 August and Cherchesov believes his men have what it takes. "Of course we are disappointed not to have won," he said. "But it was just the first half. The second half will be played at Celtic Park and this is when all will be decided ... No one has given up on getting to the group stage."
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