Celtic earned their just rewards for creating one of this season’s biggest UEFA Champions League shocks when they raised the roof in Glasgow by reaching the knockout stage with a 2-1 win over Spartak Moscow on Wednesday.
Neil Lennon’s men, who last month stunned Barcelona 2-1, put in a determined performance on a cold and noisy night at Celtic Park to book their place in the round-of-16 for the first time since 2007-2008 and lift some of the gloom over Scottish soccer.
An 81st-minute penalty by Kris Commons sealed victory for Celtic after a nervy game, where fans and players were only too aware the ticket to the knockout round depended on the other Group G game at the Camp Nou, where Barca were hosting SL Benfica.
Celtic went ahead in the 21st minute through Gary Hooper’s low drive after a blunder by Spartak centerback Juan Insaurralde, but the Russian side pulled one back six minutes before halftime through Ari’s delightful lob.
The hosts pushed hard for a winner, but had to wait until the 82nd minute when Commons struck from the spot after Giorgios Samaras was pushed over in the area.
Lennon was not the only person in the ground who could not bear to watch as Commons sent the ball against the bar on its way in for a winner that put Celtic on 10 points, three behind Barca, but two ahead of Benfica, who drew 0-0 in Spain.
“I’ve watched the last couple of penalties and we’ve missed them, so I thought I’d give this one a miss,” a jubilant Lennon told Sky Sports. “Kris showed a lot of character ... he deserved the goal. He wrote his name down in the club’s folklore.”
Having beaten Barca in Glasgow and been seconds away from a draw against them in Spain, anything other than a passage to the knockout round would have been a disappointment for the Scottish champions.
Anticipation hung in the air on a tense evening, with home fans keeping a close eye on what was happening in the group’s other match, while their team fought off a spirited showing by Spartak, who had already finished bottom.
Celtic nerves were temporarily calmed after they were gifted an opener when Spartak’s Argentine defender Insaurralde miskicked a long ball from Celtic’s Samaras and sent it straight into the path of Hooper, who drilled home.
However, Spartak, who had looked the more threatening for much of the first half, put the brakes on the Scottish celebrations in the 39th minute when Emmanuel Emenike played in Ari on the right and the Brazilian chipped the ball over goalkeeper Fraser Forster.
The hosts then set about trying to find the goal that would change their fate.
News that it was still goalless in Spain kept fans glued to their phones hoping for a Barca goal if Celtic could not manage one of their own.
Samaras and Ambrose went close, before Commons’ spot-kick sent Celtic through.
With confirmation that the final whistle had gone in Barcelona, the stadium erupted and the party got into full swing.