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Celtic FC gave themselves a good opportunity of making progress to the next stage of the UEFA Cup with a 1-0 victory in the first leg of their third-round meeting with RC Celta de Vigo courtesy of Henrik Larsson's sixth goal in the competition.
Larsson struck seven minutes into the second half at Celtic Park, fighting to gain the vital touch with his head after Dianbobo Balde had been first to a corner kick. With the aerial strength of John Hartson and Chris Sutton in particular and with Celta goalkeeper José Manuel Pinto not always looking secure when in the ball was knocked high it was a fair guess that the breakthrough goal would come that way.
With Celtic also avoiding the concession of an away goal they will travel to Spain for the away leg in two weeks confident they can emerge on top. If so it will be the first time the Glasgow club have continued a European campaign beyond Christmas for 23 years.
They deserved this win but were lucky not to go behind in the evening's first attack from Celtic's kick-off the visitors broke away and Silvinho's cross fell nicely for Gustavo López. His shot was on target but Robert Douglas was behind it all the way.
Celtic settled down and began to ask questions of Celta with their pace and mobility and their ability to stretch them through the wide men Didier Agathe and Steve Guppy. Guppy in particular enjoyed a good night and his crosses were often the source of Celta alarm.
In the 12th minute it was Agathe's prowess that undid Celta. Larsson was unable to make contact and when Guppy emerged on the scene the ball flew up off his face from the goalkeeper's outstretched leg and over the bar. Agathe might have scored soon after when Guppy's cross caught out Pinto whose attempt to punch clear only fell to the winger. With an open net in front of him Agathe hurried his attempt and over it went.
Celta were happy to reach the break on equal terms. They had shown a spark or two whenever Silvinho advanced but their captain, Aleksandr Mostovoi, was slow to influence events. Mostly the visitors had their defensive heads on, though Douglas had to be on his guard when the occasional promising sortie found the men in front of him struggling to cope.
Larsson's goal delighted the home crowd. It was the least Celtic deserved because the skill of Sutton, the perseverance of Hartson and the threat of Larsson had cast them as the more likely winners. Hartson's hopes rose as he combined deftly with Sutton but Sebastián Ariel Méndez Pardiñas made a crucial interception. Larsson could have doubled his tally but from Hartson's assist he allowed Pinto to make the save.
The Celtic manager Martin O'Neill, banished to the stands with 12 minutes remaining, felt his side "deserved to win the game by more than one goal". The Northern Irishman added: "
It was a brilliant effort from my team and a second goal would have been just reward for our efforts. If we are good enough to go through in Spain then so be it."
O'Neill's opposite number, the Celta coach Miguel Ángel Lotina, said: "I expected a better result but after the game I am happy that it was just 1-0. Celtic have the advantage in terms of the score but we now have the advantage of playing at home.
The crowd impressed me, but they will not be there in Spain."
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