Though both sides had plenty of supporters among the 32,162 who packed Fenway Park, it was Celtic FC that clearly had the home-field edge. Whenever the green and white jerseys shot, the crowd roared; whenever those jerseys were penalized, the displeasure wasn’t hard to identify.
"We knew there was a huge following [in Boston] — obviously the Irish and the ex-pats and second-generation, third-generation Irish — so it was important to try to connect with the supporters and take the team here," said Celtic manager Neil Lennon. "It was important to put on a performance to send the fans home happy because a lot of people have traveled a long, long way to come and see them, and the guys always appreciate it."
It took 71 minutes before either side scored, and it took a six-round shootout to break the tie, but Celtic escaped Football at Fenway with a 2-1 exhibition win over Sporting CP on Wednesday.
It may not have counted for much other than pride, but it’s pride that Lennon will gladly accept.
"I thought we played very, very well," Lennon said. "Our intensity was good, our quality was good, so overall, it was a worthwhile exercise."
The experience was not all for naught for Sporting, either. Just being at Fenway Park — being able to experience the culture in Boston, and the culture of the Red Sox — was worth the trip.
It wasn’t until the 71st minute that Celtic forward Georgios Samaras broke a scoreless tie with a free kick inside the box, but 11 minutes later, Helder Postiga made things exciting once again, corralling the rebound of Diogo Salomao’s bid — which bounced off the crossbar — and nailing it past Celtic goaltender Lukasz Zaluska.
During the shootout, it was Paul McGowan that played hero for Celtic, scoring in the sixth round after Sporting star Liedson’s miss. Although the end result of an exhibition game doesn’t matter, there’s plenty for both clubs to take away from the matchup as the regular-season grind looms ahead.
"It was a difficult match against a difficult team, and a difficult preseason game," said Sporting captain Pedro Mendes. "We're not at our best yet. … There's a lot of room to progress and get better before the start of the season."
The field conditions may not have been preferable, but much like the rest of the Football at Fenway experience, they were interesting to behold, if nothing else.
"The pitch was a surprise," Mendes said. "It was quite special. It's a historic place. It's different, but the environment was great."
Lennon’s favorite part of Fenway Park was the same thing that entices doubles hitters to Boston, albeit for different reasons.
"I think it's the setup [that makes Fenway special]. It's not like your normal stadium, really," Lennon said. "Is it the Green Monster you call it? You have people sitting up on top of that."
Sporting manager Paulo Sergio explained that the setup of the pitch was a bit disarming, only because he was used to having the crowd much closer to the action than Fenway allowed. As a result, when he looked across the pitch, it seemed like there was far too much space to the left — "It gave me the impression that my left was too long," he joked after the game.
But the ballpark itself left a greater impression on Sergio and his team than the skewed dimensions of the pitch.
"It was an honor [to play at Fenway] because it is a mythical stadium," he said. "I'll [leave] here a fan of Red Sox, and I'm going to be more curious about baseball."
Leading up to Wednesday’s games, both sides preached that the outcome wasn’t relevant. What mattered was bringing soccer to Boston, putting it on the biggest stage New England has to offer and reveling in Fenway Park.
And in the end, it was exactly that. Fenway, in all its awkwardly shaped splendor, made the whole extravaganza worth it.
"It was different, and I think we enjoyed it,” Lennon said. “Just the fact that it's one of the most famous stadiums in the world, to come and play a football game here was pretty unique."
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