It was matchday five of the UEFA Champions League group stages, and Celtic were playing host to Manchester United. The game was finely poised when the Hoops won a free-kick 35 yards from goal with just nine minutes of the match remaining.
A hush of anticipation descended upon the stadium as Shunsuke Nakamura prepared to take the set-piece.
The Japanese genius stepped up and fired the ball into the top corner of the United net beyond the despairing dive of goalkeeper, Edwin Van der Sar… Paradise erupted!
Nakamura’s goal gave the Hoops a 1-0 victory and ensured they qualified for the knockout stages of the competition for the first time in the club’s history.
There can have been few better free-kicks ever witnessed at Celtic Park, and even 14 years on from that wonderful European night, memories of it still produce goosebumps.
And in remembering Naka’s breathtaking goal, we delve into the Celtic View archives for an interview with the Japanese playmaker he gave the week after the game against Manchester United…
AMIDST the bedlam of Celtic Park, as almost 60,000 supporters urged the team on in search of victory against Manchester United, one man stood out as a beacon of calm.
Nine minutes remained on the clock as Shunsuke Nakamura stood over the ball some 35 yards from the United goal, waiting as the referee marched the defensive wall back the obligatory 10 yards.
The English side already knew how dangerous Celtic’s Japanese midfielder could be from setpieces, having conceded a goal at Old Trafford on Matchday One of the UEFA Champions League.
But his task this time was much harder. United, and goalkeeper Edwin Van der Sar in particular, had been forewarned and the freekick was much further out than the previous one.
Nakamura, meanwhile, was shutting out all distractions, his attention solely focused on United’s Dutch stopper.
“I am always looking at the goalkeeper and where he is standing,” explained Nakamura, speaking exclusively to the Celtic View. “I can only look at the goalkeeper. I don’t look at the spot I am aiming for, otherwise they will know where I am going to put the ball. So I just focused on Edwin Van Der Sar and no-one else.
“In terms of the supporters, the atmosphere was amazing that night and they help me in matches. They support me and encourage me, but at that moment I was only focused on the goalkeeper.”
The resulting free-kick was of such quality that it eclipsed Nakamura’s earlier outstanding set-piece strike at Old Trafford. That spectacular effort was voted goal of UEFA Champions League Matchday One by visitors to the UEFA website from around the world, but Nakamura’s latest masterpiece will undoubtedly be in the running for goal of the tournament come the end of the season.
Such was the pace and accuracy of the strike that Van der Sar, 6ft 5in tall at full stretch, could only grasp at air as the ball sailed into his top corner.
It was a goal that sparked wild scenes of jubilation at Celtic Park and, once the dust had settled on the contest, further increased in importance as it ensured Celtic’s progression to the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League for the first time. Nakamura, however, remained modest about his goal.
“If you were to talk about the free-kick itself, the flight of the ball, then I have scored better goals,” he admitted.
“But if you are talking about the importance of the game, about the fact it was Manchester United, about the atmosphere at Celtic Park, about the quality of the goalkeeper and the fact that Celtic went through to the last 16, then that was my best free-kick.”
While Nakamura’s delivery and first touch indicate a supreme natural talent, in the wake of the victory over Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, Celtic manager Gordon Strachan gave the greatest insight yet as to the commitment and mentality behind the midfielder’s success on the park.
“He’s probably up in the gym now,” said the Celtic manager in his post-match interview. “That’s how good a professional he is, he goes up to the gym and does two hours there after every match. When I was playing we were in the pub for five o’clock!”
Nakamura instead appears to prefer the additional hours in the gym and the extra shifts in the rain at Barrowfield, spent curling ball after ball into the net, occasionally with his interpreter Makoto Kaneko playing the part of goalkeeper.
“I just stand there,” said the translator with a bemused look when asked if he ever made a move for a ball that has befuddled worldclass keepers.
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