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Season Review 2003-04
|Matches: 2003 - 2004 | 2003-04 Pictures | League Tables: 2003-04 | Statistics|
- Celtic win the league & cup double.
- Celtic's 39th league title.
- Celtic notched up a record-breaking 25 match winning run, and now a British record in top-level football.
- Celtic did not lose a game until after the club's 39th championship was delivered.
- Henrik Larsson's last season at Celtic.
- Celtic whitewash Rangers, winning 5 games in 5 against them (four in the league, 1 in the Scottish Cup).
- First and only time that either side has won 4 league games in 4 v the other in the Celtic v Rangers matches.
- Larsson is now widely acknowledged as one of the club's greatest ever players, and ranks amongst the top three goalscorers in the club's history.
Season Review 2003/04(written by Krys Kujawa (author of From Seville To Sevilla: The Story of Celtic's 2003/04 Season))
Season 2002/03 had promised so much, but in the end delivered so little. The Road to Seville had been a terrific ride for all involved, but the disappointing end to the final itself, quickly followed up by missing out on the title by a single goal, was a bitter pill to swallow. With Rangers completing the domestic treble, Celtic were left with no trophies to show for their efforts. 2003/04 would be the season where Celtic would put that right - and the supporters took great delight in pointing out that their “tainted treble” (an interestingly apt description given the EBT and undisclosed payments revelations of later years) was not the achievement some people were making out about throughout the summer.
Pre-SeasonCeltic’s season warm-up took them on a three match tour of Sweden, beginning with lower league clubs and finished off in Helsingborg, the home of star striker Henrik Larsson. After a brief trip to London to play Fulham, Celtic then headed stateside to play in the “Champions World Soccer Series”.
A heavy defeat to Manchester United was enough cause for several farcical negative headlines, but victory over Boca Juniors set Celtic up nicely for the start of the Champions League qualification campaign
Champions LeagueWith two qualifying rounds to negotiate, Celtic’s first stop was Lithuania to play FBK Kaunas. A 4-0 away win ensured the job was all but done after the first leg, and this was confirmed a week later with a 1-0 home win in unusually warm weather - bringing back memories of Seville! In between, Celtic hosted Arsenal in the last of the pre-season friendlies, and earned a 1-1 draw with the English team that would go on to win the English Premier League without defeat in any of their 38 matches.
The final qualifying round went the same way, starting with a 4-0 away victory against MTK Hungaria, all but ensured that top tier European Football would be back at Celtic Park once more. This was confirmed after the second leg with another 1-0 win, giving Celtic a place in the group stages of the Champions League. Celtic would be joined by Rangers, ensuring for the first time that Scotland had two representatives in Europe’s premier competition.
Celtic’s Champions League group consisted of Bayern Munich, Olympique Lyon and RSC Anderlecht, with the first of the six matches seeing Celtic travel to Germany on the back of an away win over Dundee. Despite taking the lead in Munich through Alan Thompson, two late goals from Roy Maakay ensured the home side got their campaign off to a winning start. But before that, the month of September was rounded off with a fantastic 2-0 win over Lyon at home.
Match day three saw yet another disappointing away trip in Europe, this time a 1-0 defeat to the ten-men of Anderlecht. But the Belgians would be blown away when they visited Celtic Park in November, as Celtic found themselves 3-0 up at half-time and eventually winning the match 3-1. A home 0-0 draw with Bayern Munich set all four teams up with a chance of progressing, with Celtic requiring just a draw in Lyon. Coming from behind twice in the match, Celtic went into the final couple of minutes of the game looking to be heading through. But a soft penalty for handball against Bobo Balde saw Lyon get the crucial winning goal they needed, sending them through with Bayern Munich and consigning Celtic to the parachute into the UEFA Cup.
League CupThe Champions League disappointment in December was not the only one. Due to television coverage, Celtic did not play their first League Cup match against Partick Thistle until the start of that month! Two weeks later, and just a week after missing out on the Champions League knock-out stages, Celtic’s visited Easter Road. The game saw Celtic take the lead, but two goals in the second half from the home side saw Hibernian progress to the League Cup semi-final against Rangers instead of Celtic.
Despite Hibs winning that to knock out both Glasgow teams, they would lose the final to Livingston anyway!
SPLCeltic’s SPL season kicked off at Dunfermline - with much still being made of the suspended Chris Sutton’s post-match comments from the final day of the previous season - and a disappointing 0-0 draw saw Celtic fall behind in the title race from day one. But that match was to be a blip as Celtic set off on a record breaking winning streak, starting with a 5-0 win over Dundee United. Celtic rounded off the month of August with a similarly emphatic 5-1 victory over Livingston, with hard fought narrow victories away from home at Dundee and Hibernian following in September keeping Celtic on pace with league leaders Rangers.
The first derby of the season in October saw Celtic emerge deserved 1-0 victors, John Hartson getting the only goal of the game for his first of the season and his 50th for the club. The win lifted Celtic ahead of Rangers and up to the top of the SPL, a position they would never be moved from. 5-0 and 4-0 wins over Hearts and Aberdeen at home continued our thumping home form. That was then carried away from home in November starting with a 5-0 win at Kilmarnock . That match saw Chris Sutton get his first Celtic hat trick - a feat he would accomplish again later in the month in a 5-1 winning visit to Tannadice.
Despite the cup disappointment in December, the winning run continued through the month, ending the year with the biggest win of the season - a 6-0 thrashing of the same Hibernian that had knocked Celtic out of the League Cup nine days previous! It was the best result to take into the second derby of the season.
Having overtaken Rangers after the first time the teams had met, Celtic now entered the second meeting of the season eight points clear of their rivals. Goals from Stiliyan Petrov, Stanislav Varga and Alan Thompson ensured that gap was extended to eleven points with a comprehensive 3-0 win in the first New Year derby match for several seasons. A terrific way to start the new year! The SPL winning run was extended to 21 with wins away to Hearts and Aberdeen, and at home to Kilmarnock in the remaining games in January. February then saw wins over Dunfermline, Dundee United, Partick Thistle and Livingston.
This meant that by the end of the month, Celtic’s league winning run had reached 25 in a row and had surpassed Greenock Morton’s 23 in a row record of 1963/64.
Scottish CupFollowing a cagey 2-0 win over Ross County in January, a quick return to Tynecastle following a narrow league win there saw Celtic win the cup tie 3-0 and set up a home tie against Rangers in the fifth round. With a lack of fit strikers for the match, Celtic still managed a 1-0 victory courtesy of Henrik Larsson to ensure not only their place in the semi-final, but also the effective end of Rangers season.
Having won the treble the season before, Rangers were now all but guaranteed to win nothing.
UEFA Cup ReturnAs Spring arrived, European duty for Celtic returned with a first leg home tie against the Czech Republic’s FK Teplice. Two goals in the opening few minutes of the game put Celtic in a comfortable position, with a late third goal giving a 3-0 first leg lead to take abroad. The second leg at the beginning of March would prove to be difficult, but as Teplice could only manage a 1-0 victory, Celtic progressed. Nevertheless, the draw was as difficult as it could have been as Barcelona got pulled out the hat to play us in the draw.
Arguably one of the two form teams in Europe, Barcelona arrived at Celtic Park confident. But Celtic Park had become something of a fortress, with no visiting team winning there since Ajax back in August 2001. The opening 45 saw both teams have chances to take the lead, but after a goalless first half it all kicked off in the tunnel. Rab Douglas and Thiago Motta were shown red cards, meaning Celtic youngster David Marshall would see out the rest of the tie in goals. The sending off of Javier Saviola early in the second half swung the tie in Celtic favour, before Alan Thompson scored the only goal of the match to give Celtic a narrow 1-0 victory. It was then on to Barcelona for a date with destiny.
From the opening minute, Barcelona battered Celtic’s goal. But from the opening minute, there were indications that new Celtic heroes were being written into folklore. David Marshall, in for the suspended Rab Douglas, had the game of his life as he pulled off save after spectacular save. John Kennedy, in for the suspended Bobo Balde, put in a series of well timed challenges on the later named 2003/04 Balon d’Or winner, Ronaldinho. Stephen Pearson, brought in from Motherwell in January, worked tirelessly to give his defence a rest every once in a while. Finally, after the longest 90 minutes had come and gone, Celtic emerged unscathed to knock Barcelona out 1-0 on aggregate.
Unfortunately, the European run would not last much longer. Following a 1-1 draw at home to Villarreal which featured Henrik Larsson’s British record 35th European goal, a 2-0 defeat in the away leg ended the bid for a second successive appearance in the UEFA Cup final. It did, however, forge a new friendship with the fans of Villarreal leading to the creation of the Celtic Submari CSC.
Trophy RunCeltic’s winning run was ended at home to Motherwell as Martin O’Neill rested a few first team players - Henrik Larsson coming off the bench to earn a 1-1 draw. But victories on the road at Dundee and Hibernian got Celtic back on track ahead of their second visit to Ibrox of the season.
The match came just days after knocking Barcelona out of Europe, so of course the fans were in the mood to rub it in. Kick off for the fourth derby of the season was delayed several minutes as Celtic supporters flooded the Ibrox pitch with beachballs. Once the game started, goals from Henrik Larsson in the first half and Alan Thompson in the second half ensured Celtic recorded a fifth consecutive win over Rangers despite a late Steven Thompson goal giving the home side some hope.
The following weekend, Celtic would stare home defeat in the face as Hearts found themselves 2-0 up with just a few minutes remaining. However, the never say die attitude of Martin O’Neill’s team was evident as a late goal from Chris Sutton was followed up in injury time by an equaliser from Didier Agathe.
On the same night as the disappointment of defeat to Villarreal, there was better news as Rangers dropped points to Livingston ensuring that Celtic could win the title at Rugby Park that weekend. Celtic had already beaten Livingston 3-1 in the Scottish Cup semi final in between the two Villarreal legs, setting up a Hampden farewell for the departing Larsson.
The visit to Kilmarnock was a cagey affair compared with some of the other matches Celtic had played through the season. Nevertheless, a single goal from Stiliyan Petrov was enough to clinch victory on the day and secure the safe return of the SPL title with six games to spare. All the more remarkable when you consider that the feat had been done without a defeat in any of the 32 matches, and only three draws throughout that period.
Of course, it’s just like Celtic that they would go out and lose to Aberdeen at home the following midweek! Despite taking a first half lead, Aberdeen equalised in the second half before securing a late victory with almost the last kick of the ball. The amazing unbeaten home record was gone. A draw at Tynecastle followed, which included a debut goal from precocious Celtic youngster, Aiden McGeady.
The SPL trophy was presented to Celtic on May 2nd, following the league match against fellow Scottish Cup finalists, Dunfermline Athletic. A shock lead for Dunfermline was countered just after half-time, but the visitors would score again to record a highly unusual back-to-back home defeat for Martin O’Neill’s Celtic! It did not dampen the mood too much though, as the trophy presentation was met with the usual delight by all.
There was more delight seven days later when Celtic met Rangers for the fifth and final time. Having won all four of the previous games, all talk was of a Rangers whitewash by Celtic. An early goal was chalked off for a soft foul, and by the time injury time was reached at the end of the match it looked like Rangers might escape with a 0-0 draw. But just as they had in their first derby together, Larsson and Sutton combined in their last to put Rangers to the sword one final time thanks to a delightful 92nd minute chip from the Englishman. The Rangers fans were clamped mid-flow, the game finished 1-0 and the whitewash was complete.
Celtic’s league campaign came to a close with a draw away to Motherwell before a 2-1 victory over Dundee United. For the majority of the game it looked like Larsson’s final competitive home appearance would end in disappointment, but two late goals from the man himself had even the usually composed Swede showing the emotion of the occasion. Not even a late penalty from future Celtic player and Celtic fan Mark Wilson could stem the flow of tears on and off the pitch.
Larsson’s final competitive match for Celtic had a similar story. Dunfermline had taken a first half lead in the Scottish Cup final, but two goals from the Swede ensured that goals 241 and 242 for the club he had spent seven years with would finish in style. The game was all but over when Celtic took the lead, but a third from Stiliyan Petrov ensured that the league and cup double would be completed without any doubt.
The season ended with a final “farewell fiesta” for Larsson. The man himself didn’t score, although the theme tune to the “The Magnificent Seven” reverberated around the stadium one last time when at half time Henrik’s son, Jordan, scored in the “ten second challenge”. The occasion was entertaining enough, with Celtic beating Sevilla 1-0 thanks to a goal from Chris Sutton, but the tears had been shed against Dundee United and the trophies had been celebrated at Hampden and at Celtic Park earlier in the month. Nevertheless, those that were there would look back on the game as one last chance to see a Celtic legend in the flesh (whilst he was still on our books).
SummaryWas this a perfect season? No. This season was no match for 1967, but we all know there is no match for that. Was it Martin O’Neill’s best season? That is an enjoyable debate. Some will argue that the 2000/01 treble season was better because we won everything in Scotland. Others will argue that you just cannot beat going to a European final whether we won or not, and so the 2002/03 season should be recognised as the best. But for me, 2003/04 was when we combined the best of everything.
We had the European joy of being in the Champions League before going on to beat Barcelona - in my opinion the best team Celtic have beaten in Europe since the days of Jock Stein. We had a league and cup double to celebrate - no League Cup, but by this point in Scottish Football history that trophy has been severely devalued anyway. We had a record breaking winning streak in the league - and even when that was lost we remained undefeated until the title was won.
And, of course, we had the whitewash of our greatest rivals - you can’t beat a good GIRUY.
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