STEPHEN PEARSON is miles away.

He is standing inside an empty Ashton Gate but he has allowed his mind to wander all the way back to the east end of Glasgow, the memory of one night six years ago filling the stands around him. The midfielder's contribution on a night when Celtic defeated Benfica on their way to securing a place in the last 16 of the Champions League has been preserved in the form of a YouTube video but this replay comes as a private screening.

Celtic had forced their way into a 2-0 lead by the time he replaced Evander Sno late on, Kenny Miller twice bloodying the nose of a Benfica side that included Greek midfielder Kostas Katsouranis and Portugal internationalists Simao, Petit and Nuno Gomes.

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Pearson needed just three minutes to deliver a knockout blow; the Portuguese club having to settle for third place behind Celtic in Group F. A flick from Miller sent Shunsuke Nakamura in behind and his shot was parried by Quim, leaving the goalkeeper out of position. Pearson's volley reared up off the turf and spun into the net.

The scene that followed has given that three-minute cameo a central role among his highlights at Celtic – "it is the moment of my career," he said at the time – which speaks to a truth about European nights at Celtic Park: they are experienced by thousands all at once and yet feel unique to everyone.

When Spartak Moscow arrive tonight at Celtic Park the memories of his Champions League night are likely to be given renewed prominence, not least as a similar result for Celtic could thrust them into the last 16 of the competition for the first time since 2008, when Barcelona put them out by winning in both legs.

Pearson had left Celtic Park by then – his goal against Benfica was dramatic, but the midfielder had become a low-key presence, and teamed up the following January with his former Motherwell manager Billy Davies at Derby County – watching from afar as his former team-mates battled to a 1-0 aggregate defeat by eventual winners AC Milan.

Now at Bristol City, the step away has also enabled the midfielder to view his 2006 experience in a wider perspective with a bristling Celtic Park framing the occasion. "I have been lucky enough to be part of those nights in the past; it's just a great experience. Champions League nights at Celtic Park - they really are a one-off," said Pearson, who has been joined by former Celtic players Stephen McManus and Mark Wilson at Ashton Gate. "To be part of that is fantastic and it is always nice to look back and say you played in those games.

"I watched the Barcelona game [when Celtic won 2-0] and they were absolutely fantastic. To beat the best club team in the world was just superb. They defended fantastically well and for the amount of effort they put in they can be mighty pleased with themselves."

The 30-year-old takes a broader view of football in his home country too – "It is sad what has happened and the knock-on effect it has all had on the so-called smaller clubs in Scotland," he said – but his focus will soon return to trying to pull City away from the lower end of the npower Championship, a 4-1 defeat by Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday dropping the club into the relegation places.

It is an environment far removed from the one into which he stepped at Derby when in 2007 he scored what has become known as the £60m goal to decide a play-off final against West Bromwich Albion to secure promotion to the Barclays Premier League. Yet he is comfortable at City, and in a dressing room which also contains Richard Foster and Danny Wilson.

"It's been easy for all the Scottish boys to settle in. There are a few I've played with and against. There is a good contingent here," Pearson said. "It helps everyone, and all the Scottish boys try to stick together."

Pearson's thoughts, however, will surely settle for a time tonight in his old east end stamping ground.