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Nov 5, 2008

Celtic prove stubborn opponents for United

Celtic 1-1 Manchester Untied

Reports of the demise of Scottish club football have, it appears, been exaggerated. Celtic were six minutes away from becoming the first team to defeat Manchester United in the Champions League for 18 months and, perhaps, claiming the unofficial title of champions of Europe.

They were remarkably close to avenging their defeat at Old Trafford a fortnight ago and making comments from some of their critics, such as Paul Ince, appear rather ill-advised. But while Manchester United, in time-honoured fashion, mounted a comeback, respect was restored.

And, in an oblique reference to another former United midfielder, Gordon Strachan said: ''We're men. You cannot play like that if you're not men. They're a million miles ahead of us technically, but we're not boys. Boys can't fight like that.''

Few teams can. The gulf between the English and Scottish champions may be, as the first meeting suggested, growing, but Celtic's spirit threatened to render that irrelevant. The volume and vastness of their support never ceases to amaze, but they are at a disadvantage now.

United's huge global fanbase outnumber the celtic diaspora, television and merchandise revenue is larger at Old Trafford and, unlike Glasgow, Manchester is recognised as an established and legitimate destination for football's A-list.

Yet Celtic managed to bridge the gap. If this was a match that mattered more to them than United, the first-half performance, and indeed the team selection, certainly suggested so.

Nevertheless, it was strange that a former Rangers striker and an ex-Aberdeen manager should be guilty of over-confidence in his choices. Sir Alex Ferguson may have been attempting to keep his powder dry for Arsenal, but he was almost burned on Guy Fawkes' night.

While United's leveller involved two players who had started the game, it was significant their improvement involved three men he hoped would remain unused substitutes. ''Resting [Patrice] Evra was one thing I thought I could do safely, [Wayne] Rooney and [Dimitar] Berbatov was a bit more difficult.''

The goal came when Artur Boruc could only parry Cristiano Ronaldo's swerving shot into the path of Ryan Giggs, who plunged forward to head the equaliser.

Berbatov, however, had demonstrated again that he adds another dimension to the United attack. ''He gave them another problem,'' added Ferguson. ''The positions he picks up are very difficult to pinpoint.'' His display was another indication of the Bulgarian's big-match temperament. During the first-half others appeared taken aback by the toxic combination of the enviable energy of the Celtic players and the verbal assault from their fans. The rookie right-back Rafael da Silva, for instance, appeared a boy amongst Bhoys.

But United had forced two goal-line clearances, both after corners. Stephen McManus distinguished himself by appearing behind Artur Boruc to clear John O'Shea's header, then Shaun Maloney emulated him to deny Ronaldo in the second half.

Thereafter it was, Strachan was told, like 'The Alamo. ''I've watched that a few times,'' he replied. ''I'm a big John Wayne fan. At least we got out of here alive. John wasn't so lucky.'' But Celtic showed a magnificent defiance.

The two central defenders, McManus and Gary Caldwell, excelled in a formation that began as 4-4-2 and evolved into a revolutionary 9-0-1. That, in turn, was a product of Celtic's industry. ''I could have done with 11 subs because after an hour they were all tired,'' explained Strachan.

After 13 minutes, however, they were buoyant. Caldwell deftly guided a ball from Shaun Maloney into McDonald's path and the Australian's lob was equally precise, nestling in Ben Foster's net with the keeper stranded. At a club where great deeds are rapidly mythologised, McDonald appeared likely to join Shunsuke Nakamura, their last match-winner against United.

Those present to witness the first draft of history made an impression of their own. The concept of the crowd forming the 12th man is often an embarrassing cliché. At Celtic, it has a certain truth.

''The atmosphere is the best in Europe on a night like that,'' said Strachan. Ferguson seemed to concur. ''It's a fantastic atmosphere here,'' he said. ''Unless you go to Barcelona or Real Madrid, nothing equals that.''

He pronounced himself pleased with the point, meaning United have effectively qualified for the knockout stages, but it has not been the best couple of days for ageing men intent on world domination.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Stephen McManus
Celtic's two central defenders rivalled each other, block for block and tackle for tackle. There was a moment when bodies were strewn in their box as McManus and Caldwell both repelled shots in a matter of seconds, but the captain's goal-line clearance earns him this vote.

CELTIC VERDICT: Their display was all the more admirable as they were without three of their major attacking threats, meaning McDonald had to shoulder a huge workload in attack. ''How would they get on without Rooney, Berbatov and Ronaldo? I don't know,'' said Strachan. ''If we get all our players back, we'll be a better side. The one thing we can't improve on is the spirit.''

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Their second-half performance was excellent, but Ferguson was reminded of their importance of some of first choices. Berbatov, in particular, looks integral already, which hardly helps Carlos Tevez's cause. Some of the understudies - including the substituted duo of Rafael and Nani - appeared unsuited to the task. Celtic Park is not the best place to rotate.

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