Totti lifts Roma past Celtic at SkyDome

Italian forward scores the winner in the 25th minute

by John F. Molinaro

TORONTO — A full moon illuminated the sky high above the open roof of SkyDome on Saturday evening, but it was the presence of a single star inside the stadium that shone the brightest.

Francesco Totti scored in the 25th minute on a marvellous header to lead Italian club AS Roma to a 1-0 win over reigning Scottish champions Glasgow Celtic in an international soccer friendly match.

The crowd of 50,168 was the largest audience to witness a soccer game in the history of the SkyDome.

After Friday's snoozefest between FC Porto and English side Liverpool — a lifeless match that the Portuguese champions won 1-0 — Saturday's contest was a thrilling affair that saw both teams hold nothing back and attack with verve and pace from the opening kickoff.

Totti was unmercifully booed in the pre-game introductions by the large, singing contingent of Celtic fans who obviously haven't forgotten the three-match suspension he received at Euro 2004 for spitting in the face of Denmark's Christian Poulsen.

But the AS Roma forward showed why he is considered the 'golden boy' of Italian soccer, dazzling the fans with his fancy footwork, his deft touch and his playmaking vision. He was recognized for his outstanding play when he was named the official 'man of the match' after the game during an on-field presentation.

It was clear from Saturday's game that Totti has already put the debacle of his disastrous Euro 2004 campaign behind him.

"Totti has a fantastic reputation," Celtic manager Martin O'Neill conceded.

"He played great," Roma assistant manager Gabriele Pin said through a translator. "He's about 50 per cent right now but he keeps improving all the time and he's one of the better players that there is."

"Physically he's about 50 per cent, but his heart is big and he plays with 100 per cent."

Totti expertly ran the Roma attack, scoring the winning goal on a fantastic header that capped off a sparkling offensive flourish by the Italians.

The play began at midfield when Frenchman Olivier Dacourt made a timely pass that launched teammate Gaetano D'Agostino on a marauding run down the right flank.

Once he penetrated deep into the Scottish half of the field, the young midfielder made a beautiful cross into the penalty area where Totti beat his defensive marker and sent an exquisite header over the reach of a leaping David Marshall in the Celtic net.

The same duo nearly linked up for a second goal two minutes later, but Totti couldn't control a pass by D'Agostino, and Marshall was able to gather up the loose ball.

Roma came close again in the 32nd minute, but D'Agostino's curling free kick from 25 yards bounced off the outside of the left post.

Celtic had difficulties unlocking the stalwart Roma defence marshalled by Greek international Traianos Dellas, Italian veteran Cristian Panucci and French youngster Philippe Mexes.

Mexes, acquired by Roma in the off-season from French club Auxerre, made several key tackles and broke up a number of dangerous Celtic plays throughout the contest.

It wasn't until the 42nd minute that Celtic was able to fashion a clear scoring chance.

Aiden McGeady found Chris Sutton with a cross, but Roma goalkeeper Carlo Zotti tipped the ball over the crossbar. Three minutes later, Zotti made a sensational stop off a John Hartson header, and even though teammate Bobo Balde collected the rebound and had a wide open net to shoot at from two yards out, he somehow fired wide.

"Balde is not exactly noted for finishing off two-yard chances," O'Neill kidded. "When I saw that it had fallen to him, I wasn't actually sure that he'd put it in and he proved me right. If he can keep them out at the other end for us during the season I'll be incredibly pleased."

Celtic enjoyed more of the possession in the second half but still found it hard to break down the Roma defence. They did have their chances, though.

Second-half substitute Mohamed Sylla headed a chance from close range over the bar, and a late free kick on the edge of the Roma box was blasted directly into the defensive wall.

The game became a bit of spectacle in the waning moments when a Celtic fan and a pair of Roma supporters jumped onto the field in separate incidents, disrupting play.

Celtic poured on the pressure during four minutes of extra time, and should have equalized late but Sylla's inch-perfect cross into the middle of the Roma penalty area was squandered, as Stephen Pearson's shot from six yards out sailed over the crossbar.

"I thought we dominated a bit more in the second half, but we were a bit unfortunate not to win," said O'Neill.