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Spectator sport

Two-horse race

Football’s European Champions’ League awaits the serious new year stuff once a few loose ends are tied on Wednesday.

29 November 2006

2:43 PM

29 November 2006

2:43 PM

Football’s European Champions’ League awaits the serious new year stuff once a few loose ends are tied on Wednesday.

Football’s European Champions’ League awaits the serious new year stuff once a few loose ends are tied on Wednesday. Arsenal and Manchester United each need only to draw, respectively against Porto and Benfica, and only abject pessimists in red shirts need fret — Arsenal beat Porto well enough at home in the qualifying game and although missing their totem, Henry, through suspension next week they have been showing an increasing zest in Europe; and United, of course, have not lost a Champions’ League group game at Old Trafford since 2001. In February’s last 16, both should join Chelsea and Liverpool, already safely in the hat, and who each play their dead-rubber final group games on Tuesday; in the latter’s case, especially, Europe is providing a welcome papering-over distraction from the Anfield club’s bitty, discordant Premiership autumn.


The wider British story is the heartily rousing one concerning Celtic, dramatically through after doughtily overcoming Man U’s swaggering presumptions by a single goal (a left-footed free-kick of such resplendence it reminded us old hands, touchingly in the very week he was buried in Budapest, of the primaeval Magyar maestro Puskas, all-time ‘one-footed’ leftie). Who could have imagined ‘Celtic 1, United 0’ when the Scottish champions were so mauled at Benfica in September? Next year marks the 40th anniversary of Celtic being the first British club to win the European Cup. In those lamented days of the one-off knockout, I worked for ITV and was thrilled to follow that triumphant run, shaped by the grand, sage manager (another immortal), the coalfield-tough Jock Stein. Each player was born within five miles, or something like that, of Celtic Park. Different now: there was just a single ‘Mac’ in the XI last week, and the showstopper score was by a Japanese.

I suppose the Glasgow hatreds linger and that Celtic’s first Champions’ League qualification has been greeted with bitter blue envy by Rangers folk. A few weeks ago this corner mentioned the 75th anniversary of the death, literally on the spot, of the legendary Celtic goalkeeper John Thomson, when diving at the foot of a Rangers’ forward. Thomson was the solitary Protestant in that Celtic side — and Jock MacAnon from up there was fast to send down a note telling me how, in his first, earlier ‘old firm’ match, young Thomson had at half-time complained to his colleague Jimmy McGrory, ‘These Rangers fellows keep calling me a seethin’ Papist bastard.’ McGrory calmed him, ‘Don’t bother, lad, I get called that and worse every week’ — at which Thomson had replied, ‘That’s all right for you, you are one.’

Meanwhile December already and there is not much glitter or bunting surrounding England’s Premiership. The hard core still, apparently, pay their money and get worked up over it, but for those who can take it or leave it a dread predictability pervades the whole panto. Has it been other distractions, the cricket or rugby perhaps? Unlikely lads at Portsmouth and Aston Villa have been enjoying some stirring passages but, in truth, Chelsea and United have bolted so far ahead that everyone else is already an also-ran. I must admit, mind you, to seeing on television a handful of ravishing goals by Chelsea’s centre-forward Drogba. In France four or five years ago I saw him as a cumbersome cub, but there was a beauty about him and he scored a couple of sublime out-of-the-blue blinders for Marseilles. Most friends scoffed when I told what a monarch he’d looked. Nice to be right.


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