Scottish Daily Mail



THEY said that Celtic were no longer competitor­s but mere participan­ts at this level. They claimed only a fool would take a pea-shooter into a knife fight. That the battle of Britain had disappeare­d into a rich man’s pocket.

They claimed that no one could stop this sky blue juggernaut in its tracks, let alone a side from the Scottish Premiershi­p. But what did they know?

A night that began with grainy black-and-white footage of Celtic’s first game of the victorious 1966-67 season against Zurich ended in glorious Technicolo­r and with a stark reminder that despite their enormous financial disadvanta­ge to much of the field, Celtic remain not just relevant in the European game but still a force to be reckoned with when the stars align.

Hard on the heels of a seven-goal drubbing in the Nou Camp, it was hard to build a case for Brendan Rodgers’ side bloodying the nose of a team currently sweeping all before them in England.

For them to stand any chance here, they had to be magnificen­t. Yet they were. Brave, bold and bullish. Night and day from Spain two weeks ago.

Sure, the restored Craig Gordon earned his corn. You’d have expected nothing less.

But to a man Rodgers’ team — assembled for a pittance compared to Pep Guardiola’s squad — refused to give up one square inch of the lush Parkhead turf.

It was a game for the ages. One to join the greats of the past half a century. And when the dust eventually settles on it, no one will dare say that Celtic are simply making up the numbers in Group C now.

Celtic Park in the moments before the sides emerged was a stark reminder that there are some things in life that money can’t buy.

Any European night at the old place is something to behold. A Champions League occasion, extra special. As for one with the small matter of an English opponent thrown in? Surely the equal — if not better — than any venue the continent has to offer.

The ‘noisy neighbours’ — as Sir Alex Ferguson had once labelled the emerging City — did their utmost to make themselves heard but the wall of sound created by 55,000 roaring You’ll Never Walk Alone drowned them out.

As the teams broke from their customary handshakes into the cauldron of noise, even players you might have thought had seen it all looked temporaril­y spooked.

For Gordon, running to accept the thunderous applause of the home fans at the outset of such a fixture was the fulfilment of a lifelong dream.

A decade ago, the keeper had dared to dream of reaching this stage with his boyhood heroes Hearts. AEK Athens soon put paid to that.

Despite the loss of three goals, his contributi­on to the first point of the campaign cannot be understate­d.

As special a night as this was for all of Rodgers’ squad, the ex-City contingent chief among them, for the man who appeared to have lost his place to Dorus de Vries so recently, it held extra significan­ce.

The arsenal attempting to breach Gordon’s goal had the propensity to reduce lesser men to a wreck.

Sergio Aguero — the second worldclass Argentinia­n striker Celtic had faced in as many games — bought for £38m but now worth two or three times that total. Raheem Sterling, now justifying the £49m City paid to take him from Rodgers’ Liverpool. And David Silva. A man who may one day necessitat­e a FIFA directive instructin­g the use of two footballs when he’s on the field of play.

Scott Brown had urged his teammates not to dwell on the £500m of talent they were facing for fear it might faze them. If only it was that easy. But Celtic flew out the traps.

Scott Sinclair, ruthlessly discarded at the Etihad, was like a man possessed, bobbing and weaving at Pablo Zabaleta from the off.

Fittingly, it was his free-kick which instigated the opener. James Forrest cushioned it back across goal. Truthfully, Moussa Dembele knew little about Erik Sviatchenk­o’s header catching him on the way in but few were on a mind to quibble.

Kolo Toure, another City old boy, forced Claudio Bravo to scramble a save and briefly the visitors were rocking.

But City’s ability to seemingly score at will this season punctuated what was really their first attack. Aleksandar Kolarov’s shot was superbly killed by Fernandinh­o and placed beyond Gordon.

What mental strength Celtic showed to come again. Tom Rogic’s skill and strength was matched by his vision. The overlappin­g Kieran Tierney’s shot may have taken a nick off Sterling but just try taking the goal off him.

Sterling’s redemption wasn’t long in coming. Dembele short-changed Brown with a pass and six seconds later, following Silva’s exquisite interventi­on, the winger had squared a truly breathtaki­ng contest.

Only a heart of stone would have denied them the break — courtesy of Kolarov’s slip — that allowed Dembele to spectacula­rly restore the one-goal advantage early in the second period.

Karma was not long in biting back, however. Gordon did well to deny Aguero but the foot of Nolito was the last place the ball needed to end up at. 3-3.

Celtic’s energy levels dropped. But their hearts remained huge and their belief unstinting.

When Gordon heroically denied Ilkay Gundogan at the death, a share of the spoils seemed fated.

Rodgers had said that the Champions League started properly with this game and he was right.

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