This week Suduva will travel all the way from Lithuania to Parkhead for the second time in European competition. Their first visit to Glasgow was in 2002 and resulted in a resounding 8-1 victory for Celtic but the matters surrounding the game are well worth recalling.
In the summer of 2002 Celtic fans basked in their second successive SPL title win under the stewardship of Martin O’Neill. The World Cup from the Far East had showcased the fact that we had two genuine world class players in Johan Mjallby and Henrik Larsson, who were outstanding in that tournament. Everyone agreed that with a couple of decent new signings the Celts could make a real mark in the forthcoming Champions League competition. There was only one qualifying round and Swiss champions, FC Basle, were the obstacle to overcome.
The quality signings never materialised that summer (sound familiar?) and neither Magnus Hedman, Ulrik Laursen or David Fernandez were to make any real impression during their short careers at Parkhead. Ultimately, they were squad players and were not of the quality required.
Basle were to prove stiff opposition. Although Celtic won the first leg 3-1 at home the fans had seen enough to realise that the second leg in Switzerland would be a tough encounter. As it was, Celtic lost 2-0 and the main memory of that game will always be Chris Sutton’s injury time shot which agonisingly missed the goal by inches. Such is the margin between success and failure at that level. Basle, inspired by the Yakin brothers, then went on to greatly impress in the CL group stages.
Celtic were then left with the consolation prize of the UEFA Cup. The first round draw paired them with Suduva and Parkhead was a sombre place as the fans came to terms with their CL disappointment. My recollection from then is that the newspapers were reporting the demise of Henrik Larsson. The great man had ‘only’ scored once in his previous four games and the media reported him having a ‘World Cup hangover’.
Rumours of his demise were greatly exaggerated and he rattled in a hat trick in an 8-1 romp as Celtic cast the Lithuanians aside. Petrov, Sutton, Lambert, Hartson and Valgaeren were the other scorers. Steve Guppy had an impressive game on Celtic’s left wing and created a number of goals on the night with his direct wing play and ability to send in quality crosses from dead ball situations. The second leg was academic, Celtic winning 2-0, with the easily forgotten Fernandez scoring his only goal in a Celtic jersey. There was much hilarity later that night as Rangers went out to the unknown Czechs, Viktoria Zizkov at Ibrox.
There are many similarities today with 2002. Lack of genuine activity in the transfer market to build at a time of strength, Champions League disappointment and quality players losing form. That all sounds very familiar to Celtic fans in the present day. It is worth remembering that the Suduva game in 2002 was the first small step on the road to Seville and the fabulous memories that we retain from that era. None of us could have known on that September evening of the joy and drama which would fold out between September 2002 and May 2003.
It’s now down to the Celtic players to show their true quality to beat Suduva on Thursday evening and send us on a new modern day journey. There are many quality teams in this season’s Europa League tournament and as we are in pot 2 the hope is that we can realise European football after the new year which is always a bonus.
And as was shown in 2002, who knows where this new journey will lead us this time round ?