Football - Soccer-Celtic achieve 'miracle' on a shoestring

By Martyn Herman


Dec 6 (Reuters) - Celtic manager Neil Lennon described as a miracle his side's unlikely path to the last 16 of the Champions League and while he may have been still under the influence of Wednesday's euphoria it is hard to argue with the sentiment.

The Scottish champions were hardly given a prayer of surviving a group comprising Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow at the outset yet their name will be in the Dec. 20 draw after finishing runners-up to Barca in Group G.

While the 1967 European champions remain a huge club, enjoying some of the biggest crowds in British football with more than 40,000 still filling Celtic Park each fortnight, their financial muscle is puny compared to the clubs plying their trade south of the border in the English Premier League.

For winning the SPL for a 42nd time last season, Celtic received 2.9 million pounds ($4.67 million) while also benefiting from an equal share of half of the 17 million pounds the SPL raises from TV and marketing revenues and which is split between all 12 clubs.

That is loose change when compared to the 60.6 million pounds raked in by English champions Manchester City last season - 15 million of which was a merit payment for coming top with another 18 million pumped in from overseas TV rights.

"I'm very proud of the players," Lennon said after his side's nervy 2-1 victory over a Spartak Moscow side that has spent 35 million pounds on players over the last two seasons.

"They have performed a miracle. People laughed at me when I said that my target was to qualify."

Even Wolverhampton Wanderers, who finished bottom of the Premier League pile, earned 39 million pounds last season while the three sides relegated from the top flight in 2009-10 enjoyed 15 million pounds in so-called parachute payments.

They are the kind of sums that Celtic can only dream about and yet, with almost no transfer budget, they eclipsed Man City and European champions Chelsea this week.

While City were stumbling out of Europe with the worst group stage record put together by an English team in the Champions League, Chelsea have only Europa League football to look forward to after finishing third in their group.

Arsenal were hardly ripping up trees as they made a drama out of finishing second in a group far weaker than the one Celtic found themselves in.

While Celtic ended the group stage undefeated at home, including a remarkable victory against Barcelona, Manchester United completed their group fixtures with a home defeat by Romanian side Cluj having already reached the last 16.

Add into the equation the current gloom in Scottish football with Celtic's Old Firm rivals Rangers banished to the third division after a financial meltdown and the national team ranked below the likes of Sierra Leone and Uzbekistan, and the boost Celtic's progress has given it cannot be over-stated.

In the absence of Rangers, Celtic were expected to walk away with the SPL title, but despite leading the table they have struggled, losing at home to Inverness Caledonian Thistle recently and being held to a home draw by tiny Arbroath in the Scottish FA Cup four days before they faced Spartak.

Several Celtic first-teamers such as Joe Ledley, Wednesday's hero Kris Commons and Gary Hooper were plucked from the English second tier while Greece international striker Georgios Samaras was regarded as a flop when at Manchester City.

Keeper Fraser Forster was Celtic's most expensive summer signing - 2.5 million pounds from Newcastle United.

Yet, under Lennon they have over-achieved spectacularly in Europe this season with the Northern Irishman extracting every last drop of potential from a workmanlike squad.

Now they can look forward to taking on the likes of Manchester United, Bayern Munich or Juventus - all potential last 16 opponents - as well as a 3.5 million euro ($4.57 million) bonus for reaching the knockout stage to go with more than 10 million euros they have already earned from the group stage.

While the money is welcome in lean times, Lennon prefers to concentrate on the football.

"It is going to be really tough, against the top teams in the groups," Lennon said.

"You just don't know what shape teams are going to be in two or three months' time. But we are there, we are going to enjoy it and we want to progress as far as we can in the competition.

"The spirit is fantastic. They have put everything into the group and they have grown as the campaign has gone on and some have enhanced their reputations no end." ($1 = 0.6214 British pounds) ($1 = 0.7652 euros) (Editing by Toby Davis)

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