Desmond Kane

Celtic’s progress in Champions League is a Christmas miracle

There have been a few happenings in and around the haggard world of professional football over the past few days that that do not appear to have any obvious conclusion, but it remains worth asking: Why did the West Bromwich Albion player Liam Ridgewell snap himself wiping his backside with £20 notes when he clearly had toilet roll to call upon?

Why would any frazzled hack pen a weird newspaper column to randomly question the sexuality of a professional footballer and include xenophobic references for no apparent reason other than to appear utterly bonkers?

And what right did a young Celtic side have to dock in the last 16 of the Champions League when Chelsea, winners of the world's leading club competition last season, and Manchester City, dripping with Abu Dhabi petrodollars, both fizzled out in the first stage despite dousing their respective squads with millions of television candy? And then plenty more of their own folding stuff.

The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind. Or at least freezin' in Glasgow's East End. Of course, some questions remain easier to answer than others.

In early December, Celtic's progress in the Champions League is a Christmas miracle. The decision that presented Kris Commons with the opportunity to wallop a penalty into the net that sealed a 2-1 win over Spartak Moscow eight minutes from time last night was fortunate, to say the least. Georgios Samaras tumbled to the deck under little or no pressure from a tackle by Marek Suchy that somehow encouraged the German match official Felix Brych to award a penalty.

But it would be churlish to argue that Celtic were fortunate to progress. Benfica needed to beat Barcelona. 0-0 was not good enough for them in Spain against a makeshift home team. Neil Lennon's side have worked awfully hard for their success throughout a tournament which began with two qualifying matches against Helsinki and Helsingborg in August. They are the second youngest squad in the tournament.

Samaras certainly put in the hard yards. He hit a post with a volley, but ran over 10,000 metres including the couple he stumbled and fell to earn the penalty.

His team-mates have proved similarly durable to repel some big hits. Celtic have benefited from a prudent and thoughtful signing policy that gives the squad the moorings to withstand the buffeting of typhoons that rage. They were without injured captain Scott Brown in the 2-1 win over Barcelona a month ago. They were last night without the suspended Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama, a figure who scored in the beating of Barca.

Celtic's fans again contributed heavily, but one wonders if this would have become reality if Lennon had succeeded in landing his early targets in his formative months in the job back in 2010.

The former England goalkeeper David James, Jimmy Bullard, Sol Campbell and George Boateng were just a smattering of the names Lennon tried and failed to land. A lack of money and dearth of publicity playing in the unfashionable Scottish Premier League probably scuppered some or all of those possible signings. Perhaps without choice, Lennon was forced to alter tactics in recruiting less starry and younger visions of unproven talent from less fashionable leagues. The endorsement of such a policy came to glorious fruition by qualifying for the knock-out stages.

Celtic do so by finishing with 10 points behind the Group G winners Barcelona. Gordon Strachan managed Celtic to the last 16 in 2007 and 2008, but his side never reached double figures in escaping from the group stages. Despite overseeing a squad that included Henrik Larsson, Chris Sutton, John Hartson and Lennon as a player, Martin O'Neill could not coach Celtic to the last 16.

"This has been a great learning experience for us all," said Lennon, whose gait remains as purposeful as his side's. "Now we are more than just the team who beat Barcelona, we are the team who beat them and qualified. This is the premier event, the toughest of the tough. No one gave us a prayer going into this group. This is the best night of my career as manager of this club."

Unlike after the win over Barca, there were probably not too many tears streaming down the cheeks of the singer and ardent Celtic supporter Rod Stewart last night. More relief. They would have frozen in mid-air. Relief was the more the sensation. Stewart apparently has a release clause written into his contract in Las Vegas allowing him to attend Celtic matches.

"One of the best achievements in Champions League history when you put it into context," said the former England midfielder Jamie Redknapp, who was last night swooning over Celtic as much as a pair of Marks and Spencer action slacks.

What he was putting into context was Celtic's win over Barcelona was not the one-off Lennon feared it would be. As a Chelsea squad assembled for £328 million became the first holders of the Champions League to depart at the first hurdle, Celtic were emerging from a group with a group of alleged waifs and strays purchased for less than £20m. Premier League champions Manchester City have yet to go beyond the group stages having spent over £1 billion since 2008.

"Bye bye Celtic. They've drawn Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow," tweeted ITV after the draw was made. Now Celtic are part of another draw for the last 16 on December 20 with sides such as Borussia Dormund, Manchester United or Juventus possibly arriving at Parkhead.

As I said earlier, you witnessed a Christmas miracle last night. For the good of football, most fans should welcome this Celtic story in times of obscene spending. Celtic's progress is a resounding victory for those who believe football clubs should live within their means.

As an example of UEFA's financial fair play rules, Celtic can be held up as role models. Of course this is nothing new in Scottish football. It was a concept that used to work well when Celtic (European Cup 1967), Rangers (European Cup Winners' Cup 1972) and Aberdeen (European Cup Winners' Cup 1983) carried off European trophies in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. In terms of the modern era, it is paying off again for Celtic.

Against all the odds, Celtic's soul remains untainted in the face of the obvious impracticalities of residing in Scottish football. It make nights like last night all the more joyous. Rather than Rod Stewart's new Christmas album, Coldplay's 'Paradise' fits snugly into Celtic Park this weather.