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Football: CLUELESS COLUMBO; Nightmare referee is a mystery as raging O'Neill blows his top.

Byline: David McCarthy

UEFA sent a man called Columbo to Celtic Park last night. It would have been more appropriate if his name had been Clouseau.

For sheer incompetence, the French referee given the job of handling the battle of the Celts was as hard to beat as Rab Douglas is these days.

This bewildering and bewildered little balding bantam of a man sent Martin O'Neill to the stand five minutes from the end of yet another tumultuous European night at Parkhead.

The Irishman had taken Columbo's c*** all night but when he pulled Henrik Larsson up for a foul that was committed only in his own head, O'Neill cracked up and was sent to watch the rest of the match with the punters.

The Celtic manager had watched Columbo fall for every trick in the Spaniards' book and although he shares his name with Peter Falk's character he was hopeless at detecting the timewasting, diving and gamesmanship that eminated from the men in pale blue.

Columbo's decision to wave play on after Larsson had skinned Juanfran and was then scythed was just unbelievable.

Ironically, the one dive he spotted was John Hartson's in injury time. The Welshman was correctly yellow carded.

But he missed an Edu kick at Bobo Balde. He ignored another one by Juanferan on Sutton and booked the Celtic player. If it were no so serious it would have been laughable.

Certainly, Hartson didn't see the funny side of it. He said: "The manager's sending-off is going to make all the headlines but I did not see anything wrong with what he said or did.

"He was just contesting a decision and he has been punished for it.

"I knew right away what was happening as not many people realised that he had been sent off.

"Martin O'Neill is passionate on the line and he is like every other manager in that respect.

"We were 1-0 up and holding on for our dear lives and concentrating on winning the game and he has been punished for it.

"I hope his ban is not too severe as we do not want him off the line for too long.

"The boss didn't apologise to us after the game for what happened. In fact, he didn't mention it.

"I don't want to say too much as I may get punished myself but every Celtic supporter in the ground saw some of the referee's decisions.

"I spoke to about 50 fans immediately after the game and they were incensed by the referee's performance and that says it all really.

"The ref has booked me and accused me of diving. They will say I took a dive but I have never dived in my life.

"I have gone across the player and I have gone over before his leg came in and I have gone over and the ref has booked me for it.

"I felt that was a bit harsh too.

Hartson admits that it was another superb result for Celtic and that the tie in Vigo could be shaping up for a repeat of the way things went in Blackburn in the previous round.

He said: "We were superb in the second half and if we had taken one or two more chances we might have scored more goals and been even more content."

Celtic can now add the scalp of Celta to those of Juventus, Porto, Rosenborg, Valencia and Blackburn Rovers - all A- class sides who have been unable to live with Celtic when the floodlights burn and UEFA flag flies over Parkhead.

The Spanish giants, who have reached the last eight of this tournaments three times in the last five years, were sent home as the others have been - with their bags packed by Henrik Larsson.

Quite how Celtic will cope when their talisman ups sticks and heads back to Sweden, no one knows.

But to ponder on that last night would have been to rain on a pretty impressive Parkhead parade.

This was a night when the team branded headless chickens by Vigo coach Miguel Latina strutted like cocks of the north as they made one of La Liga's finest look ordinary.

Whether the close-range strike conjured up by Larsson in the 51st minute will be enough when Celtic travel to the Galicia region in a fortnight remains to be seen.

But they've given themselves a chance and with their defence in Scrooge- like form one goal in Vigo could be enough.

In fact, they might not even need it if Rab Douglas keeps putting the shutters up.

Celtic owe the big keeper a debt all right.

His performance in the last round was instrumental in us all being there last night and only Alex Burns of Partick Thistle had beaten him in the last seven outings before Celta came calling.

He made an absolutely critical save within 15 seconds last night and had Gustavo Lopez's shot eluded him it would have been a very different night.

Certainly, scorer Larsson was quick to recognise the big keeper's performance. He said: "If we had lost a goal that early it would have been an uphill struggle, so it was a very important save.

"We have to do better in the early stages of these games.

"We lost an early one against Basel but not this time and after that the defence played well and so did the whole team.

"It was a good result and it was so important that we didn't concede a goal. We have a chance over there.

"The tie is far from over and it will be even more difficult over there."

Chris Sutton concurred. He said: "It was good not to concede a goal but on balance we could have scored a couple more.

"We know what they can do when they have space and it will be up to us to make sure they don't get any in the second game.

"We have to go there and be as composed as possible. I am sure we will be positive and we won't sit back."

Perhaps the best result of all for Celtic though, is that Columbo will be nowhere near the scene when the next episode is played out in two weeks' time.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Nov 29, 2002
Words:1042
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