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CELTIC V. PORTO. UEFA CUP FINAL 2003, SEVILLE.
Reviewed by TIM LUNN
In the end they just weren't quite good enough. Celtic showed all their strength and passion in a pulsating clash against the technical, gifted Portuguese champions, but were eventually eclipsed by a little genius with a little touch of class.
As the game unfolded, Celtic looked to be the more dominant force; strong in midfield, tenacious at the back and tireless up front. They out-muscled Porto, showing all the traits that have powered them to memorable away victories at Celta Vigo and Liverpool. Yet, amongst this show of control and possession, there was Deco, the Brazilian-born playmaker kid who the Scots never came to terms with.
The stadium, and city, had been filled with a fresh, vibrant feel all week. The opportunity for both sides to win their first ever UEFA cup filling the ground with a buoyant atmosphere of anticipation. The sweltering heat of Seville, the carnival crowd, the definitive dramatic final.
Porto forced the play early on, and was soon clear whom they looked to for inspiration. Capucho and Derlei, the ten-goal top scorer, were the two-pronged attack, working off the pivotal flair of the diminutive Deco.
A sublime flick, twist and turn left two Celts trailing and he was beautifully away, only the feet of Douglas saving the day. Moments later, class was rewarded as Alenichev's crisp volley from a lofted Deco ball was only parried and the Brazilian scored his 11th, and easiest goal of the tournament, from close range. Its arrival in the 45th minute sheer perfection or disaster, depending on your allegiance.
Deco was the player of the half. His touch, vision and confidence shone out as he orchestrated everything that was good in the match. Celtic just didn't have an answer to his unique ability to find space and play the killer ball.
No sooner had breath been regained in the break, then the cauldron exploded to life again. Larsson rose majestically to meet an Agathe cross, and angled a perfect header past the statuesque Baia. The Estadio Olympico shook as a sea of hoops danced deliriously. Yet, joy soon turned to vunerability. 'That man' turned and split the defence effortlessly with an incisive ball, Balde was nowhere, Myallby hesitated, and the Russian winger Alenichev finished with aplomb.
But there was still no let-up. 120 seconds passed before Thompson swung over a sweet left foot cross. Jorge 'the animal' Costa stood dumbstruck as Henrik the Swede rose unchallenged to arch backwards and plant a sweet header past the hapless dive of keeper. 2-2 with 30 minutes to go.
Now, games like this demand a strong referee; a Collina-clone with presence and intelligence. Instead we got Michel Lubos, a naïve Slovakian with limited knowledge of European football indelible traits. The Porto theatrics now became the focus of the game. A simple foul brought with it four rolls across the pitch. Bobo Balde's rash tackled led to a roll, skip, song, dance, mini-pitch invasion and pirouette from the kit man! Judgements were impaired and contact exaggerated, as the Bhoys were reacquainted with the Eurotrash habit of elaborated injury.
The game struggled and stumbled through to full-time via a series of whistles, few real chances, and minimal physical contact.
The magic sponge, heat rub and impassioned instructions were administered before the final surge. But the tired minds and limbs were soon snapped back into action. Bobo the clown lunged, missed and was deservedly shown the red card. Never has anyone received such a warm applause for such a significant error.
And then it came. Through the toil, effort and passion of both sides emerged the cruellest of finishes - the error. Deco's slide rule ball was mishandled by Douglas, and fell to Derlei. He skipped past McNamara and thumped a rasping shot. As it hit the net, the Celtic players collapsed by the dozen. The final nail in their Andalucian dream.
A bridge too far for O'Neill's men. They matched Porto in every department and exceeded in many. Yet, as many other British sides have found in Europe this season, they just did not have that extra bit of quality.
The beauty and cruelty of the game never better reflected than in the faces of Mourinho and O'Neill respectively. As the Portuguese celebrated jubilantly in a haze of blue and white tickertape, the Celtic manager stood, hands on hips, just a few yards away, the evident anguish of defeat subtly mixed with an enduring sense of pride. And just a thought for what he could achieve with a little piece of Brazilian magic in his midfield.