Henrik Larsson: The King of Kings (Part 3)

The 2002-03 Celtic season brings upon a mix of emotions to the hearts of Celtic fans. Some mention the feeling of sheer frustration and anger at losing the league title to Rangers by a single goal despite beating Kilmarnock 4-0 away on the final game of the season, others mention the lacklustre performance as Celtic went out of the Scottish Cup to Inverness. However, the main aspect of the season that all Celtic Fans can look back on with fond memories is the much-acclaimed “Road to Seville” in which star striker Henrik Larsson played a vital role, scoring crucial goals and providing excellent links and support to O’Neill’s famous front three of Larsson, Sutton and Hartson.

The season started with little incomings or outgoings, the only departure of note being Olivier Tebily to Birmingham. This consistency and continuity of keeping the core of the squad together meant a lot to O’Neill as he was a great believer in effective man-management and followed a lot of the principles of Brian Clough. O’Neill did whatever it took to ensure that he had the dressing room on his side and his man-management qualities have been praised by Larsson and many professional footballers, despite doing little on-pitch coaching.

O’Neill focused his attention towards implementing a more aggressive, pressing and dynamic 3-5-2 formation and the benefits for Larsson started immediately into the season, scoring two in the SPL curtain-raiser against Dunfermline at Celtic Park. Larsson’s prolific goalscoring abilities and ability to create opportunities continued to show throughout the early part of the season, linking up well with Sutton on numerous occasions. The early benefits of this partnership showed in high-scoring games against Aberdeen, Dundee United and most notably Kilmarnock in which Larsson and Sutton scored every goal in a 5-0 win.

Celtic Park was quickly becoming a fortress, after a disappointing away-goal defeat to Basel in the Champions League Qualifiers, an 8-1 win against Lithuanian minnows FK Suduva in which Larsson scored an excellent hat-trick in a fantastic attacking performance showed that Celtic meant business and were determined to go far in the competition. Celtic also won the subsequent away leg 2-0 but the tie was effectively over in the first leg. The tie finished 10-1 on aggregate and little did Celtic know that this thrashing would be the beginning of an eight-month thrilling emotional rollercoaster.

Celtic continued their good start to the domestic season with fantastic attacking displays in the SPL, O’Neill’s 3-5-2 high-intensity pressing system paying dividends for Larsson and Sutton who were averaging almost a goal a game as Celtic scored four goals for four games in a row before their much anticipated second round UEFA Cup tie with Blackburn Rovers at Celtic Park.

This game dubbed “The Battle of Britain” in the media was anticipated to be a particularly close affair, especially with the star-studded Blackburn line up. In actuality however Blackburn were dominant for large parts of the game when out of seemingly nothing, Larsson once again stayed calm under immense pressure to slot home from an initial save from a Sutton header and send Celtic Park into joyous rapture and secured a vital 1-0 win to take to Ewood Park.

After blowing Aberdeen away with a brilliant display at Celtic Park and going through to the next round of the Scottish League Cup, Celtic then played the return fixture against Blackburn at Ewood Park in the UEFA Cup. The game was surrounded by controversy off the pitch following comments by ex-Rangers manager Graeme Souness that the previous fixture was like watching “Men against Boys” and that Blackburn should have won the game. This time however, Celtic appeared much less anxious as Larsson scored the ultimately vital away goal in the 14th minute. The irony of the situation is that it was ultimately former Blackburn Striker Chris Sutton who managed to score the goal which put the final nail in Blackburn’s UEFA Cup coffin.

Celtic continued their excellent domestic form following this game, including an excellent 7-0 win against Aberdeen in which Larsson scored and provided an assist for John Hartson and progressing to the next round of the Scottish League Cup ahead of their next UEFA Cup game, the third-round tie against Spanish side Celta Vigo.

The First Leg was played at Celtic Park in line with all of Celtic’s other European fixtures this season and Celtic started well on the front foot and could be considered unlucky not to take more from the game in the opening 45 minutes. Celta started to attack more in the second half and created a few chances but it was Celtic who took the lead in the tie.

Larsson once again seemingly able to score from almost nothing in a similar fashion to the Blackburn game at Celtic Park, hammering in a thunderous finish from a Sutton header was initially saved to give Celtic a crucial lead to take to Spain for the away leg. Despite the excellent performance by Celtic, the game was overshadowed to a certain extent by the rather bizarre refereeing of French official Claude Columbo who also sent O’Neill to the stands.

The Second Leg saw Celtic fall behind early on, Jesuli levelling the tie in the first half before John Hartson used his physical presence to force his way into the Celta Vigo penalty area and finish with a powerful driven shot. Celtic knew Celta Vigo would now need two goals to progress due to the away goals rule so it took a resolute, defensive performance in the Second half to secure their passage to the next round and despite Benni McCarthy scoring early in the second half for Celta Vigo they just couldn’t seem to find a way past Celtic even with Jesuli’s sitter at the end.

Celtic then proceeded to draw German opposition in the next round in VFB Stuttgart, a strong side as is who’s chances were soon made stronger by the fact that Henrik Larsson was ruled out of both legs due to sustaining a jaw injury. Celtic proceeded to win the first leg at Celtic Park 3-1 after conceding the first goal and managed to score two goals away to proceed to the next round, winning 4-5 on aggregate despite losing the away leg in Stuttgart 3-2 on the night with their star-striker out of the side.

Celtic then drew undoubtedly their most challenging opponents to date thus far in the competition in the Quarter Final, historic four-time European Cup winners Liverpool. Celtic were effectively written off as serious contenders in this game by both fans and media, with many claiming it was a “step too far” despite Celtic’s outstanding home record in the UEFA Cup thus far and the return of Henrik Larsson to the side following his jaw injury.

The First Leg at Celtic Park started in spectacular fashion, following a powerful rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” John Hartson proceeded to hit the crossbar almost straight from kick off. This relentless Celtic attack from Kick-off paid dividends within the first two minutes of the match,  Larsson keeping his calm to score another priceless goal from around six-yards out after a ball across the box by Alan Thompson.

The game proceeded at this thunderous intensity of constant back and forth Celtic and Liverpool attacks until Liverpool equalised in the 16th minute through Emile Heskey and it appeared both sides just couldn’t match the same energy and intensity in the second half. Michael Owen squandered a great chance to win the game for Liverpool late in the game but the game finished 1-1 at Celtic Park, with Liverpool gaining the crucial away goal and Martin O’Neill valiantly claiming that Celtic were still very much in the tie.

Little did O’Neill know how correct he would prove to be. The away leg at Anfield would prove to be one of the best games of his managerial career and showed that Celtic truly had the potential to go far in the competition. Celtic started the second leg with plenty of gusto and attacking play, with Larsson hitting a very good free-kick which Liverpool goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek had to scramble to save.

Right on the stroke of half time, Celtic Midfielder Alan Thompson hit an excellent low free-kick which caught Dudek off guard and this gave Celtic their all-important away goal. Celtic then secured their place in the UEFA Cup Semi-Final in the 82nd Minute when Hartson linked up brilliantly with Larsson and played an excellent one-two before lashing the ball into the top corner past the helpless Jerzy Dudek from 25 yards.

Celtic won the tie 3-1 on aggregate and won 2-0 at Anfield, stunning both Scottish and English pundits and media alike as Larsson provided a certain creative spark out of almost nothing and took the game by the scruff of the neck, as has been the case on many occasions this season.

Celtic were then drawn against Portuguese side Boavista in the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup. This was seen as a slightly encouraging draw for Celtic, considering they were underdogs to beat both Liverpool and Blackburn in previous rounds. The first leg was played at Celtic Park once again and it was almost an emotional occasion, as this was Celtic’s first European semi-final for over 30 years.

After a relatively uneventful first half, Celtic had a rather poor start to the second half against a side they were expected to do better against. Celtic conceded an own goal through Joos Valgaeren soon after half time however, Larsson equalised almost immediately after. Following some excellent combination play in the Boavista penalty area by Chris Sutton, Larsson latched on to the loose ball and scored with a great finish. Despite Larsson missing a penalty late on in the game and Celtic missing a host of chances to score the winning goal Celtic, unfortunately, had to settle for a draw which saw Boavista take an advantage back to Portugal through their highly beneficial away goal.

The second leg away in Portugal drew all sorts of emotions from Celtic fans on the night in what was a very tense affair and even now some supporters can recall their accounts of the night with raw emotion. Celtic knew that a scoreless draw wouldn’t be enough to see them through to the final of the UEFA Cup and they had to score away in Portugal to stand any chance of going through.

The match kicked off and try as they might to the backing of the Celtic away faithful, Celtic just couldn’t create anything against Boavista’s low-block 5-4-1. Boavista played what is often described as “anti-football” as they grasped at any opportunity to keep Celtic out whilst not exactly creating much of their own accord. Celtic looked doomed to go out despite forcefully pressing on the front foot with their own aggressive 3-5-2 when Larsson scored in the bottom corner from around 12 Yards in the 80th minute following a mistimed tackle by the Boavista defence which saw the ball bounce into the path of Larsson who made no mistake.

The game itself was not a classic by any means but the result and the historic significance of it was very much one to savour. Celtic went through 2-1 on aggregate, winning 1-0 in Portugal. Celtic had qualified for their first European final since the ’70s and many Celtic fans recall being in floods of tears that night. The moment the ball struck the back of the Boavista net was the exact moment that Henrik Larsson secured his place in Celtic folklore as a legend.

Celtic then faced more Portuguese opposition in the final in the form of Porto, managed by young managerial hotshot Jose Mourinho who’s side defeated Lazio 4-1 in the Semi-Finals. The match itself was almost irrelevant in the build-up with an estimated 80,000 Celtic fans descending upon Seville and those fans lucky to make it into the Estadio Olimpico continued to maintain the Celtic support’s excellent reputation, providing extraordinary vocal backing before the match even began.

Due to the match being played in 37 degrees celsius heat Celtic seemed to struggle with the humidity and as a result, could not play their attacking 3-5-2 with as much vigour and intensity which seemed to play into Mourinho and Porto’s hands. Celtic seemed to lose their composure as a result of this, Joos Valgaeren getting booked early on as a consequence.

The game was a stalemate for much of the first half, both sides having great chances to score especially Larsson who had 2 great chances in and around the half-hour mark but it was Porto who ultimately took the lead on the stroke of half time. Porto striker Derlei followed up on a saved up and finished to put Porto 1-0 up on the verge of half time and giving the Portuguese side a crucial advantage prior to the start of the second half.

The second half started with Celtic attacking with electrifying intensity and this relentless pursuit of a goal paid dividends within two minutes of the second half beginning, Didier Agathe’s sublime cross finding the head of Larsson who headered the ball exceptionally well into the bottom left corner sending the Celtic travelling support into jubilation.

Porto scored again soon after to make it 2-1 through Dimitri Alenichev however, incredibly, just three minutes after, Larsson showed his world-class quality again to level the game at 2-2 when Larsson, who wasn’t the tallest or the most physically imposing striker in the game, lost his man and powered home a thunderous header past the helpless Porto keeper.

With the game ending in a 2-2 draw, the UEFA Cup Final went to extra time and the hearts of Celtic fans across the world were firmly in their mouths at this point, especially with Celtic being down to ten men following the sending off of defender Bobo Balde in extra time. Try as they might, playing a particularly defensive style of football it was Porto who finally broke Celtic’s defensive resolve with eight minutes to go, Derlei taking it past Jackie McNamara to ultimately win the game for Porto.

Celtic gave it everything but Porto managed to seal the trophy with some astute defending, especially after Nuno Valente was sent off in the latter stages of extra time. Porto may have won the UEFA Cup but there is no doubting that Celtic could be proud of their achievements, none individual more proud than Henrik Larsson. The Swedish striker scoring 12 goals in European competition and managing to score some incredibly crucial goals along the way to Celtic’s first European final since 1970.

Celtic could perhaps be frustrated at their lack of domestic silverware in the 2002-03 season, especially losing the league on goal difference but the rollercoaster of emotions of a relatively unexpected European journey by a Scottish team is something that has only been replicated by that of Celtic’s bitter rivals Rangers in the 2008 UEFA Cup.

Henrik Larsson finished the 2002-03 season with 44 goals in all competitions and this high goalscoring record was quickly becoming a trademark of his Celtic career. Henrik Larsson played one more season for Celtic before leaving on a free transfer to Barcelona at the end of the 2003-04 season. Larsson finished his Celtic career with a simply phenomenal record of 242 goals in 313 appearances in all competitions.

As well as his stunning performances on the pitch, the emotional connection Larsson developed with the Celtic support is something that has rarely been seen besides for those who have earned the title of a legend and a player with the skill, ability and passion that Larsson had, especially on the road to Seville well and truly earned the title of a Celtic legend.

Henrik Larsson is a player who no Celtic fan will ever forget, his legacy at Celtic Park is outstanding and parents will continue to tell stories about Larsson and the Road to Seville to the next generation of Celtic Fans, wishing that they could have seen a player of Larsson’s quality live in his prime.

That is all for the story of Henrik Larsson and the impact he had on Celtic’s performances and his legacy on the club. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Any feedback is appreciated!