It was one of those rare moments in life where the scapegoat might very well have been an actual goat. Well, a sheep, rather, but it’s close enough.
Despite Celtic manager Neil Lennon’s respectful pre-match comments regarding cultural superstitions in football—alluding to Shakhter Karagandy’s traditional sacrificing of a goat for good luck before Tuesday night’s clash in Astana—the Hoops’ boss will be left scratching his head in bewilderment at the undeniable good fortune yielded perhaps directly from the slaughtered lamb.
The first Kazakh outfit to ever reach the playoff round of the UEFA Champions League, Shakhter stunned the reigning Scottish champions 2-0 in a valiant performance that will live long in the hearts and minds of all who were present at Astana Arena on Tuesday night, as well as those watching on their television screens across the globe.
It took all of 12 minutes for the Miners to etch their name on the scoresheet, as Andrei Finonchenko’s cheeky finish after slipping past the Celtic back line to meet a header off of a deep throw-in handed Shakhter a 1-0 lead.
Then, in the 77th minute, another Kazakh forward in Sergei Khizhnichenko headed a deflected cross past Fraser Forster to double Shakhter’s cushion, sending the 20,000 supporters on hand in the capital city into an uproar. It was Khizhnichenko’s fourth goal of the qualifying phase/playoff round—good for third in this year’s competition so far behind Zenit St. Petersburg’s Roman Shirokov and Viktoria Plzen’s Marian Cisovsky, who have each scored five.
Celtic will rue an early pair of missed chances in the match that saw Shakhter’s defense spring to the rescue, and the Hoops were cruelly denied a cracker of a goal when Kris Commons’ 20th-minute shot from distance went down and out off the crossbar.
The Hoops generated a flurry of shots in the second half as well, only to misfire or meet the suffocating hands of Shakhter keeper Alexandr Mokin. It simply wasn’t to be for Celtic; at least not on this night. Not in front of these fans supporting the club whose performance Tuesday night was nothing short of heroic. This result will have hipsters everywhere beaming and twittering greedily with self-righteous joy.
Coming into this year’s tournament, of the 54 recognized bodies of European football, UEFA coefficients had ranked the Football Federation of Kazakhstan 40th overall, shoehorned between Macedonia (39th) and Iceland (41st).
There were few, if any, who could have predicted this kind of success for Shakhter, let alone a 2-0 aggregate second-qualifying-round victory over Belarusian giants BATE Borisov—one of only three clubs to defeat treble-winning Bayern Munich last season.
Shakhter, who historically aren’t even the most successful club in the 12-team Kazakhstan Premier League (that would be northeast rivals FC Irtysh Pavlodar, whose five titles since the league’s inception in 1992 exceed Shakhter’s collection by three), then dispatched Albanian outfit Skenderbeu Korce 5-3 on aggregate in the third qualifying round.
The club’s inspired UEFA campaign had a Cinderella feel to it, and they might have been forgiven for bowing out in this round after missing out on weaker foes such as Austria Wien, Legia Warsaw and Slovenia’s Maribor in the draw, and being pegged against heavily-favored Celtic.
But no one expected this.
Celtic, of course, will get their shot at redemption next Wednesday in Glasgow, but imagine for a moment that Shakhter go on to defend their 2-0 lead and somehow manage to advance to this year’s group stage. Not only would the Miners become the first Kazakh side to achieve such a feat, but they would also become the farthest-eastern club to do so as well, which would have its own smattering of intriguing implications.
Coaches, players and fans alike have often bemoaned whenever a Moscow-based club finds its way into their team’s Champions League group. These three- to four-hour flights to the Russian capital have an exhaustive effect on the players’ performances, they claim; not to mention that godforsaken plastic pitch at the Luzhniki Stadium (as John Terry can attest).
But if they thought Moscow was far from Western Europe—or Donetsk, Ukraine for that matter, where funnily another team of miners can be found—then they ain't seen nothing yet.
It is difficult for me to suppress a chuckle when I plug “Karagandy, Kazakhstan” into Google Maps and zoom all the way out. There, forlorn and isolated in the middle of this behemoth of a country over 3,600 miles from London, sits Karagandy—the fourth most populous city in Kazakhstan—a place in the world where if one were to walk due south for long enough, they may eventually meet the tip of the border of western China.
A flight to Karagandy from the English capital puts the same one to Moscow to shame—it’s just over seven hours long (Air Astana is one of the only airlines that flies to Kazakhstan directly from Heathrow; though, ironically, they fly to Almaty and not the capital), or a 66-hour drive for the more adventurous supporters. To put that in perspective, a flight from Boston to Madrid lasts just under seven hours.
Whomever the clubs that are drawn into Shakhter’s group—should the Miners hold on to their 2-0 advantage—are, they are in for a real traveling treat with logistics that would make George Costanza’s head explode (if it hasn’t already).
Even more disorienting, however, could be Shakhter’s itineraries, as they would then be obligated to take three round-trip flights to Europe—one to each of their opponents’ homes—should they go on to qualify for the group stage.
But the question persists: Can Shakhter really qualify?
Surely, Neil Lennon’s squad has the grit, skill and will to overturn the tie in next week’s return fixture. They will also have a stadium overflowing with fiery, intimidating Scots in an atmosphere in which Shakhter players probably aren’t used to playing.
Experts will also assert that a two-goal lead is the most dangerous lead in football and continue to highlight Shakhter’s inexperience. And we all remember when the Hoops stunned Barcelona at Celtic Park last November and know the brand of football they are capable of playing at home.
Still, one wonders if Celtic, who were not playing their best football on Tuesday night, will progress needing three goals to advance to the group stage, and at least four if Karagandy can muster a measly one.
So, will Shakhter Karagandy, a club whose players hail from Armenia (1), Colombia (1), Lithuania (1), Serbia (1), Belarus (2), Bosnia and Herzegovina (2) and, of course, Kazakhstan (16), shock the football world and become the first Kazakh club to advance to the group stages of the UEFA Champions League?
The hipster in me sure hopes so, not least of all for the sake of the sheep.