A second half defensive display of great character and resolve from the Scottish champions took Celtic through to the last 16 courtesy of Welsh international striker John Hartson and the away-goals rule, despite a 2-1 defeat tonight in Spain.
The turning point
A goal down early on, a quite superb equalising goal from John Hartson after 31 minutes was the turning point of an enthralling game in the Balaídos stadium tonight. Fortunate to be only one goal behind in the face of unrelenting Spanish pressure, Celtic held their nerve when a second goal for the home side seemed merely a matter of time following an early strike from Jesuli. Hartson though was the difference.
Great physical strength
Receiving the ball with his back to goal, the 27-year-old forward showed great physical strength to turn both central defenders on the edge of the penalty area and fire low into the bottom corner of the Celta net. Celta had, until then, been utterly dominant with winger Gustavo López providing all sorts of problems down the left flank, with Joos Valgaeren in particular a victim of the diminutive player's pace and skill. South African international Benni McCarthy also ran tirelessly up front but lacked the physical strength to compete with a solid Celtic defence.
Jesuli was a thorn in the Celtic ranks and after 23 minutes he cut inside the penalty area to shoot a deflected goal from eight metres. Celtic were clearly rattled and the odds were firmly on another goal for the home team before Hartson upset the formbook with his marvellous strike. The boost to the Celtic spirit was immediate but the Spanish side were undeterred and pushed forward as before and when McCarthy latched on to a López pass nine minutes after the break to make the score 2-1, there looked like only one winner.
A calming influenceCeltic survive beyond Christmas
Celtic lost Neil Lennon to injury in the 54th minute but his replacement, the veteran Paul Lambert, proved a decisive calming influence. Despite their pace and slick, short passing game Celta were unable to create a real opening in front of the Celtic goal and as the minutes passed the Scottish team became ever more purposeful. The best chance for Celta came deep into added time, Jesuli firing through a pack of players in the penalty area, only to see his shot deflected narrowly wide.
Celtic hung on and progress in European competition beyond Christmas for the first time in 23 years, to the delight of manager Martin O'Neill. "They're sitting third in the Spanish league and they can play, but we've soaked up a lot of pressure to deservedly go through," he said. "The team has a number of qualities that showed out there.
We've got a great desire and a willingness to go through the pain barrier
. They've an enormous spirit about them."