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Big four toil as Celtic show spirit

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Phil McNulty | 21:48 GMT, Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Celtic made a mockery of Paul Ince's needless jibe that it was "men against boys" when they met Manchester United - as Scotland's pace-setters rounded off a testing week for England's elite in the Champions League.

Blackburn boss Ince's comment was an insult to Celtic's players after they lost 3-0 at Old Trafford recently, conveniently ignoring the fact that plenty of English clubs have suffered that sort of ignominy, and worse, at the hands of Sir Alex Ferguson's side.

For all their deficiencies and inferiority in the face of United's attacking riches on another noisy night of Parkhead passion, the qualities you could never doubt were their heart, spirit and bravery. These were real men at work.

If they actually wanted to answer Ince's sideswipe, and there was a feeling in the air that they did, then it was achieved.

Bodies went on the line. Massed ranks were formed in a green and white wall of defiance - and it almost worked as they clung desperately to Scott McDonald's brilliant 13th-minute goal.

After what seemed like several hours of United pressure, Ryan Giggs finally headed the leveller with only six minutes to go.

United, make no mistake, were in a different class to Celtic as an offensive force, but there is an art to defence as well as attack and that was what earned Gordon Strachan's side a precious point.

Celtic could have been broken completely had Dimitar Berbatov converted a simple last-minute chance, but the Scottish champions deserved a draw for sheer courage alone and Ince might now like to revisit his summary dismissal of their abilities.

Celtic's draw is unlikely to be enough to keep them in the Champions League beyond the group stages, but they once again showed they are a formidable barrier for anyone at Parkhead.

It made it a very rare winless week for the Premier League's so-called "big four" in the competition - the first in the Champions League group stages since December 2005.

United were vastly superior, but were so often blocked, frustrated and denied after a team selection by Ferguson that had the look of a gambler's throw about it, or at least that of a manager saving key players for another day, namely Saturday's game at Arsenal.

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Berbatov and Wayne Rooney were kept on the bench, but eventually had to be used, with the Bulgarian emerging at the interval and the latter coming on for the last 20 minutes.

Celtic put pressure on United in central midfield, stayed compact, forced them wide and packed bodies around the penalty area. It was a ploy that almost brought another famous win on home turf.

But it was also high-risk in that it eventually invited ceaseless United pressure that brought Giggs' deserved equaliser.

It leaves United ready to strike for a place in the knockout phase, while Celtic restored much pride after a poor campaign so far.

United are likely to be joined in the last 16 by Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal - but it has not been a week in which England's finest have covered themselves in glory.

Arsenal's goalless draw against Fenerbahce at The Emirates ended seven days of frustration for Arsene Wenger and left his team in need of a lift ahead of Saturday's visit of United.

Liverpool, for all their pressure against Atletico Madrid, needed to be on the right end of a laughable injury-time penalty decision to claim a draw at Anfield on Tuesday.

It was a game that only under-scored the fact that they simply cannot afford to be without Fernando Torres for a significant length of time.

And Chelsea copped a real punch on the nose against Roma after being lathered all over with soft soap from the Italians' coach Luciano Spalletti, who announced they were the best team in the world.

I would back Chelsea to put matters right and reach the latter stages of the competition along with United, Liverpool and - a prediction made with less conviction - Arsenal.

But, for once, it was a week when the English super-powers in Europe's elite trophy did not get things all their own way.

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