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Celtic mount improbable comeback
Celtic pulled off an astonishing comeback on Wednesday night in Glasgow, with James Forrest scoring the vital goal in injury time to take the Hoops into the UEFA Champions League group stage at the expense of Kazakh side Shakhter Karagandy 3-2 on aggregate. It was a storybook finish to a wild night in Glasgow that had Celtic entering the game needing three goals to advance after a disastrous first leg performance, and getting them in determined and gritty fashion.
It was one-way traffic for much of the game, but it seemed like Celtic were in for one of those nights as Shakhter goalkeeper Aleksandr Mokin pulled off a series of brilliant saves. Looking nothing like the mess he had in the first half, Mokin parried and punched Celtic’s shots away and out, even using his own woodwork as a backstop.
But Celtic Park exhaled when Commons collected a layoff from Georgios Samaras to fire a rocket from beyond the arc past a helpless Mokin just before the half. Samaras would add the tying goal just after the break with a cool side-foot home after the Shakhter players mistakenly thought he was offside.
That began a gritty period of simply hanging on, with Mokin making increasingly baroque saves while Fraser Forster was forced to stay sharp. Forrest’s winner would come with just a minute left in stoppage, when the match was colored by a bizarre side story: the Kazakh side were warned before game-time not to sacrifice a sheep under penalty of UEFA sanctions.
Shakhter had made international headlines last week after the team publicly acknowledged that they had ritually slaughtered an animal before the game, and planned to do it again in Glasgow, with their manager Viktor Kumykov observing that, due to Scotland’s “developed agriculture” that an ovine would surely be available.
Shakhter will get a chance to continue their traditions in the Europa League, that is, if UEFA doesn’t find out. Celtic go right into pot four and await Thursday’s draw (live, FOX Soccer Plus, 11:30 a.m. ET).
Elswhere, Kevin-Prince Boateng started and finished the scoring, Mario Balotelli struck in between and AC Milan played like the Italian giants of old to stride into the group stage. They eased past a PSV Eindhoven team which worked hard but could not find the right formula in the San Siro Stadium, a comfortable 3-0 success producing a 4-1 aggregate triumph.
Boateng got Milan off to a perfect start with a ninth minute goal, a well-struck drive from 24 yards out that skipped into the near right corner. Though PSV had its share of possession, the visitors either failed to get a clear look at goal or couldn't get the ball past a resolute bunch of defenders. Every time PSV came forward it seemed they were facing as many as eight Milan players in the final 30 yards.
Balotelli's 55th minute goal, a first-time roofer after Philippe Mexes got high above the PSV defense to nod on a corner, effectively ended the contest. A Milan counter found Boateng in space with 13 minutes left and he finished the scoring and sealed the Rossoneri’s progression.
In the early match, Zenit started with a 4-1 lead and never had the slightest problem against an over-matched Pacos de Ferreira side. Perhaps the real warning for teams who will have to face the Russians in group play was the form of Danny, Zenit's Portuguese international talisman who scored a pair of goals. He roamed from one side of the field to the other in characteristic fashion, looking very much like the player Zenit so badly missed a year ago when he was injured.
There was also a second half performance from Andrei Arshavin, trying to rebuild his career in Russia after his flameout in the Premier League. Arshavin drew a penalty which he converted himself for the final goal of a 4-2 victory and eventual 8-3 aggregate success. If the Russian international can regain anything like his old confidence, Zenit could be one of those "wildcard" teams nobody wants to be paired with in Thursday's draw.
Carlos Vela scored twice to lead Real Sociedad to another 2-0 win over a hapless Lyon, but it his second which go down as one of the games of the tournament. Starting a run some 50 yards away, Vela bobbed and weaved through Lyon to finish with a chip over poor Anthony Lopes in the net. That tied up an aggregate 4-0 win for the Spanish surprise packages.
Maribor conceded early, coughing up a goal in only the 3rd minute to Plzen, and did little for the remainder of the game. Stanislav Tecl sealed the deal on the night, Plzen advanced 4-1 on aggregate.
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