Celtic 0 Arsenal 2 (Gallas 43, Caldwell og 71)
(Champions League Qualifier Leg 1)
An extremely dangerous qualifying round was all but negotiated hours ago with a highly professional display of passing and pressing, sheer hard work eventually breaking an impressive Celtic resistance, if not their spirit.
The team was unchanged from Saturday, Cesc, Sagna and Denilson shrugging off their respective injuries to continue where they left off against Everton. For long periods of the first half, the game was scrappy yet captivating – both sides were working their socks off, Celtic chasing every ball, and us harrying them high up the park as we did so successfully at the weekend.
When the goals came, they certainly had elements of luck about them. The first came from a free kick, Van Persie rolling the ball to Cesc, whose thunderbolt struck the back of Gallas, darting across the keeper’s field of vision, deflecting wickedly into the corner. Coming just before half time, it was a hammer blow to the home support.
The second was also a shade fortunate, Caldwell turning Clichy’s cross into his own net, but in fairness he had to go for the ball with no less than four Arsenal players waiting in the box. It was the sort of pressure that invited mistakes all night.
Incidentally, Diaby, on as a substitute, played a big part in the second goal, and it seems that the stories of him improving physically over the summer are true – his shoulders have broadened out, and he’s gone from wiry to full-on, well, Vieira-like.
But while Celtic could count themselves unlucky with the goals, they can have no complants about the overall result. Almunia was called into action only once, a routine save in the first half, and rarely can an away keeper have come away from Celtic Park so untroubled.
It is incredible to see – last season we were abysmal at times in the defensive third, but although it is still early days, there are terrific signs of improvement. The partnership of Gallas and Vermaelen looks as good as any, with the new Belgian having a superb night, throwing himself full blooded into every tackle, every header.
He looks like a man who hates a quiet night. Somehow you get the impression he relishes the challenge, he wants to come away having made some outstanding blocks and tackles. Witness an extraordinary passage of play in the first half, where he ran all the way back from attacking a corner to make the crucial block at the end of the resulting counter.
In front of them, Song controlled proceedings magnificently, supported ably by Denilson and Cesc, who put in one of the best defensive performances I’ve ever seen from him. Creatively, he was not at his best tonight, but his workrate was second to none.
In truth, chances were thin on the ground. But we always looked likely to score, whereas Celtic never threatened. The two goal cushion is a great positive given the proximity of a trip to Old Trafford and the second leg.
Of course, Sky refused to give us much credit, choosing instead to focus on the ‘lucky breaks’. With the punditry team they had – former Spurs player Redknapp, former Spurs player and manager Hoddle, and former Celtic manager Strachan – there was never likely to be much of a sense of balance.
But whatever they say, it was a job well done. Our final ball could have been better, our finishing likewise. And we are yet to see the likes of Arshavin and Van Persie hit the heights. Yet we’ve travelled to Goodison and Celtic Park and scored eight times, conceding only when 6-0 up and relaxing.
There is every reason for optimism.