Have you ever had a screamer behind you at the match? You know what I mean; someone who spends 90 minutes screaming out utterly inane drivel in the general direction of the playing field in a high pitched, screeching voice? Sometimes it’s a man and sometimes it’s a lady but always it’s annoying. I and those around me had to endure a fairly inebriated female screamer during the Celtic v Valencia match and it didn’t improve our mood as the hoops stuttered to a deserved defeat. ‘Hit the fuckin’ baw!’ she shrieked early in the first half in a voice akin to someone drawing their nails down a blackboard. ‘McGregor, fuckin’ deck him,’ she screamed from just behind me as she advised our midfield General on his next move. It would be fair to say this lady had more shots than Celtic on Thursday night as this tirade of bizarre advice continued. ‘Get Rogic oan!’ she demanded of Brendan Rodgers despite the fact the Aussie is injured and sitting in the stand. ‘Ref, that was a corner, ya blue nosed bastard,’ she called in the general direction of Romanian Referee Ovidiu Hatigan.
All of this can be a bit wearing as it goes on minute after minute throughout the game although some of the folk around me found some of it amusing. One mumbled to his friend, ‘Find a woman who loves you like she loves Buckfast.’ Another said, ‘I’m off tae the snack bar, anybody want anything?’ To which his companion replied, ‘Aye see if they’ve got ear plugs.’ The screaming was one thing; the solo singing was quite something else. She was 20 minutes early with, ‘In the heat of Lisbon,’ and gave a bizarre rendition of ‘The fields of Athenry’ containing words she must have written herself. It all added to a challenging night in the North stand as the team faltered yet again in Europe.
There was a feeling of déjà vu in the air as Valencia defeated a Celtic side which seem determined to play the passing game Rodgers likes so much. I don’t fault the manager for sticking to his footballing principles as all the successful European teams play keep ball but then most of the successful teams in Europe are much better at it than Celtic. It’s to be expected that the elite teams from the rich leagues who roam the world in search of the best players will be too potent for Celtic to handle. Yes, the occasional victory over one of the big boys is possible but in general the gulf between the top teams in the big leagues and Celtic is a big one.
That being said, financially Celtic have in recent years been on a par with teams like Valencia and Red Bull Salzburg, who have built solid, efficient teams who play with assurance and pace. Why then have both of these sides defeated Celtic without much trouble? It’s down to more than money as Celtic turned over more than both clubs last year. Perhaps it is the footballing culture in countries like Spain which seems to develop players who are technically gifted and very comfortable on the ball. They also play the same way from the time they are coached as children, through the various youth ranks and on to the senior game. It is also easier to attract good footballers to La Liga than to the SPFL and it remains the top league in Europe despite what our English cousins think. The high standard in Spain demands that clubs such as Valencia play at a high level of competition every week. Celtic on the other hand is not tested in the same way, especially at home.
That being said, Celtic could have and should have been much better against Valencia. It’s the same story every year, sloppy defending, poor ball retention at key times and a lack of concentration. Both Valencia goals were soft; the first- a half arsed attempt at an offside trap- was really poor. The second saw a player run virtually unchallenged into the six yard box where he volleyed home with depressing ease. These goals had nothing to do with money, nothing to do with superior technique but everything to do with poor concentration and dreadful positional defending.
There is a school of thought which suggests that supporters should accept that Celtic will succeed domestically but generally fail in the group stages or knockout rounds of Europe’s elite competitions. One fan commented to me at the match, ‘This is all a bonus; I just want to do 10 in a row.’ We all want to see the ten done but you can’t help feeling Celtic should be so much better in Europe. Gordon Strachan’s side of a decade before were defeating top teams at Celtic Park and doing so with players which were, with a few exceptions like Nakamura, not superior to today’s side. He did it by being pragmatic about the tactics he used. He wouldn’t go toe to toe with a side which was clearly superior, he’d work out tactics to get behind them and make it difficult for them. Rodgers side seem averse to playing the odd long ball to turn the opposition defence and get our faster players running into space. Celtic had 62% possession against Valencia but most of it in areas which didn’t hurt the Spaniards. They simply waited for Celtic’s passing to break down and hit them with fast counter attacks. It wasn’t tactical genius, it was simply a case of looking at how Celtic play and setting out a game plan to nullify it. It worked as their goalkeeper hardly had a save to make all night and their forwards had twice the amount of attempts at goal on 38% possession than Celtic managed with 62%. It was never going to be easy against a Valencia side that held Barcelona to a 2-2 draw recently but you did troop out of the stadium feeling Celtic remain an enigma in Europe. The team is capable of more than we saw in that match but for whatever reason just didn’t play well.
Unless we see a minor miracle in Spain next week Celtic will be left to deal with domestic matters in the final phase of the season. We’ll all be delighted of course should they manage to win more honours this season. Rodgers’ domestic success is enough for some fans though, who sense that European football has moved on so much in recent years that teams like Celtic will likely always struggle against decent European sides. I tend to think we can and should be putting together a side capable of at least giving the better European sides a game. Too often we have gifted cheap goals in Europe and convinced ourselves the opposition was just too good. Sure, sides like PSG, Barcelona or Bayern will usually be too strong for Celtic but teams like Valencia, Zenit St Petersburg and a host of others who haven’t had to work too hard to beat Celtic in recent years should not be unbeatable.
It’s about adopting more pragmatic tactics, concentration, avoiding stupid mistakes and above all showing up and doing a good job on the night. Too many players were below par and seemingly lacking confidence as the game panned out and that is a recipe for defeat. This isn’t inevitable and we have seen Celtic build decent teams which competed well with top European sides in recent decades. We should never settle for just making up the numbers and a ‘happy to just be here’ attitude to European competition.
A club like Celtic should be ambitious and able to field a team capable of doing better than we currently are. Even the ‘screamer’ would agree with that.