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Stoppage Time: Celtic carrying weight of entire SPL

By Brian Westfall, Soccer Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - A few European giants struggled this week in the Champions League, but the awakening of an old heavyweight, Celtic, may have the biggest impact across the continent.

The Scottish Premier League was devastated with the implosion of Rangers over the last year. A league that had two notable teams in Celtic and Rangers, who play a well-known rivalry called the Old Firm, was void of its marquee match.

One of the founding members of the SPL in 1872, bankrupt Rangers was punished with expulsion from the league this summer. Relegated to the fourth tier, the path back to the top flight is as uncertain as its survival as a club.

Without Rangers, a 54-time league champion, Celtic is left to carry the torch for a league losing all relevance in Europe. The younger Glasgow rival, which played its first match in 1888, is all but guaranteed a 44th league crown.

The last club other than Celtic or Rangers to win the SPL title was Aberdeen in 1985, when it won the second of two straight crowns under Alex Ferguson - now better known as Sir Alex Ferguson, longtime manager of Manchester United.

With the weakening of the SPL after the loss of Rangers, Celtic was burdened with the responsibility of an entire nation. A European champion in 1967 and a finalist in 1970, the Bhoys have struggled in the Champions League era.

Tuesday may have marked a turning point. Celtic beat Spartak Moscow, 3-2, in Russia. It was first-ever away win in group play of the Champions League for the Bhoys since the event was renamed in 1992.

Celtic last won on the road in the tournament in 1986 when it was called the European Cup, 1-0 against Shamrock Rovers in Ireland.

"I'm the proudest man in Europe," Celtic manager Neil Lennon said. "It's just a huge step for the club psychologically, and for the players."

Who knew a Greek scoring for a Scottish club in Russia could be so important.

Georgios Samaras sealed the win with the game-winner in the 90th minute. Gary Hooper had the first goal and helped create the second, which was an own goal. It snapped a streak of 11 straight away losses in the event, dating back to a draw at Barcelona in 2004.

It would be easy to dissect the win and take some credit away from Celtic. It played after the 62nd minute up a man when Spartak Moscow had defender Juan Insaurralde sent off, and the own goal was a bit of good fortune.

But to try and diminish the win would be foolish. This was away from home in the toughest club competition in the world. It had been 26 years since Celtic last tasted victory on the road in the event.

Just ask Bayern Munich, which was a finalist last season, just how tough road games can be in the tournament. It lost to BATE, 3-1, in Belarus on Tuesday.

PSG has spent about $250 million on transfers since last summer, but it still lost 1-0 in Portugal against FC Porto on Wednesday.

Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow is not a welcome place for any opponent. So Celtic deserves a lot of credit for its streak-busting win. Call it lucky 21, as the win came in its 21st away match in Champions League play.

"(I) told them just to take a minute and take it all in," Lennon said.

"The fact we've got this result proves we're a special group," Hooper added.

A group that hopes to be better than its individual parts.

There is not even one player on the Hoops - even captain Scott Brown - who would come close to playing at Barcelona, Bayern, Chelsea, Manchester United, or other big clubs.

But that might benefit Celtic, which still has a tough road ahead. The Bhoys last made knockout play in 2007-08, when it lost to Barcelona in the last 16. But just to reach the group stage this year, it won two home-and-away series.

Celtic beat HJK Helsinki of Finland in the third qualifying round - where the Scottish champion starts the event - and Helsingborg of Sweden in the playoff round.

Although the actual tournament starts in the group stage, that is six matches against non-Scottish clubs that have produced five victories and one draw. In addition to its win at Spartak, Celtic tied Benfica at home in group play.

"I think people underestimate Celtic. We don't get the respect we deserve, but I think (the win in Russia) might change a few attitudes now," Lennon said.

Celtic plays its next two Champions League games against Barcelona, so Lennon is cautious and realistic about the challenge ahead. But with Barca the clear favorite finish first, "it's still an open group for second," Lennon said.

After its games against Barcelona, in Spain on Oct. 23 and in Scotland on Nov. 7, Celtic will visit Portugal to face Benfica and welcome Spartak to Parkhead on Dec. 5 for a match that could send the Bhoys back to the knockout stage.

"If we take our chances, you never know what will happen in football," Samaras said.

Celtic proved that in Russia. Now, with the whole of Scotland on its back, and all of Europe watching, the Bhoys have a shot to revive not just their club in Europe, but an entire league.

10/04 13:21:08 ET


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