The week Scottish clubs ruled in Europe
Any sort of group-stage win by a team from these shores is considered the most precious of riches. It could be no other way when it’s a mere three weeks shy of four years since one was last posted – the longest fallow spell since the 1992 rebranding of European football’s foremost club tournament. In the first week of October 2007, though, Scotland could boast two group stage successes within a mere 24 hours.
Matchday two of the 2007-08 Champions League is the only occasion of such a double. Frankly, with Scotland’s co-efficient unlikely to enjoy the huge upswing required to once again give the nation two entrants into the competition, it is unlikely to be ever repeated.
Celtic and Rangers twice appeared in the Champions League group stages in the same season – 2003-04 and 2007-08. Neither of them conjured up an away win in 2003, but four years later the pair managed to pull off something dramatic.
And that is what the events of 2 and 3 October 2007 were. In pulling off a 3-0 win over French champions Lyon in their Stade de Gerland home, Walter Smith’s side achieved the only Champions League away win by a Scottish team over an opponent from the big five leagues.
At Celtic Park the following evening, a spirited, last-gasp 2-1 victory over AC Milan marked the solitary occasion a Scottish side have defeated the Champions League holders. As captain, scorer and man of the match for the home side on that electric evening, it might be expected that every second of the experience would be etched on the mind of Stephen McManus. It isn’t quite like that for one reason.
“I was lucky to play in so many of these brilliant nights in Europe,” said the 35-year-old, now coaching Motherwell’s under-20s after retiring last month. “We played all the top teams in the world across those years when we reached the Champions League last 16 [as they did that season and the one previously]. Some achievement when you think of that now, and think of Celtic trying to make their mark now.
“In holding our own against Milan, Manchester United and Barcelona in that period – and getting wins over the first two – we faced the three winners of the Champions League from 2007 to 2009. It maybe wasn’t fully appreciated at the time what a big thing all this was.”
If Brendan Rodgers’ men somehow win in Anderlecht on Wednesday to move on from their 5-0 home drubbing by Paris Saint-Germain a fortnight ago they will be garlanded for their powers of recovery. Strachan’s men exhibited this in spades to triumph over Milan; this coming after they had lost 2-0 at Shakhtar Donetsk.
A cagey first hour gave way to Parkhead convulsing when a corner from Paul Hartley was “smuggled in” – as it is described in commentary – by McManus at the back post. The only goal the centre-back scored in the group stages, it must be said his close-range stab appears to be turned in by a Milan player. “Look, no-one is taking that goal off me ten years on,” he said. “I think you’ll find I made a great run to the back post that no Milan player could match!”
The Italians were capable of unrivalled gamesmanship, meanwhile. That was at play when Lee Naylor got tight on Massimo Ambrosini in the 68th minute and the midfielder threw himself to the ground. Kaka scored the resultant penalty and the visitors seemed content to sit on a 1-1 only for Milan keeper Dida to make a hash of a Gary Caldwell shot in the final minute. He pushed it out only as far as Scott McDonald, who tapped in from close range. A first goal in the competition, the Australian developed a welcome habit of coming up with them on major occasions.
“I remember making my Champions League debut as a substitute in Donetsk [in 2004] and wondering: ‘Am I good enough for this level’,” added McManus. “Then you get over that fear and grow in belief and prove yourself, and that was Scott. Gordon [Strachan] had us playing in a certain way then where the team ethic was paramount but we had individuals like Scott, Shunsuke Nakamura and Aiden McGeady who could turn games.”
There were fears the outcome of the game could be turned by an incident just after the winner, when a Celtic fan ran on to the pitch and tapped Dida mockingly on the side of the face. The keeper immediately set off in pursuit of the supporter, then threw himself to the ground holding his head. He was removed in a stretcher but the obvious play antics perhaps spared Celtic a heavy sanction as Uefa later handed the Brazilian a two-game ban, which was then reduced to one, while Celtic were fined. In the immediate aftermath, there had been talk of the result being overturned, or a section of the ground being closed for Benfica’s visit three weeks later. McManus never worried about possible penalties.
“As a footballer you concern yourself only with what you can affect on the field,” he said. “It was like the guy who ran on against PSG the other week. You can get too caught up in the fact that one person has made a backside of it and overlook the fact that so many other supporters have been immense in contributing to a great spectacle.”
The spectacle that Walter Smith’s men had conjured up in the south of France the previous evening, meanwhile, was perhaps even more unexpected. The 3-0 victory achieved through goals from Lee McCulloch, Daniel Cousin and DaMarcus Beasley remains the biggest of the mere four wins on the road by Scottish clubs in Champions League history. And Kevin Thomson, in midfield for Rangers that night, like McManus, believes respect for the achievement has grown over time.
“I think what we did that night was underplayed at the time,” Thomson said, believing that to be down, in part, to Rangers failing to go on and qualify for the last 16 – unlike Celtic, who were eliminated by Barcelona at this stage – despite winning their first two group games. A disappointment that gave way to the marvel that was their run to the Uefa Cup final.
“We beat the German champions Stuttgart in our first game, scoring twice, scored three times without reply away at a Lyon side then owning the French championship [as five-times winners], then got a draw with Barcelona and all the talk after that was about anti-football. We were a right good side, even if we never won another point after that. It was tough to take at the time but I think anyone would have accepted finishing third in that group if it meant going on to play for a European trophy against Zenit St Petersburg.”
Thomson recalls the slick surface and even slicker play of Lyon as they zipped the ball around early on. But McCulloch’s headed goal displayed “the technique you would want any player to learn from, Jig was that good in the air”. The enigma that was Cousin gave a display that demonstrated “when he was in the mood he could be anything he wanted; he was so powerful and commanding”. And with Lyon three times hitting the goal frame, once with the sort of booming free-kick Juninho was famed for, Thomson was treated to a player being able to hit the ball – “with the valve, to produce a squiggle” – he has never witnessed before or since.
Scotland has never since witnessed a week like it in Europe, with Aberdeen also qualifying for the group stages of the Uefa Cup on the away goals rule courtesy of a 1-1 draw away to Ukrainian club Dnipro. Three Scottish clubs competing in European group stages at the same time is now the stuff of fantasy. The three of them being involved in Europe beyond those group stages – as happened a decade ago – is on another level again.
“We don’t look back at a decade ago as a great era for Scottish football, but maybe we should,” says Thomson. “Celtic and ourselves were going at it for titles that went to the wire and we both had great players who could raise their game to compete with the best in Europe. You want to think that will happen again, but it is becoming so much more difficult to do that it’s hard to see it.”