Return of the cautious optimist
Those of you who saw Celtic stumble to three valuable Europa League points this week will be in no doubts as to the current difficulties the team is having. A lack of fluidity and pace saw a determined but lacklustre Celtic team almost throw away three valuable points. The shining light continues to be the form of Craig Gordon in goals and the solid central defensive partnership of Denayer and Van Diijk. Scott Brown is also regaining fitness and will improve as the season develops although his fellow midfielders have much to prove. Few would argue that Celtic were a little fortunate to win the match but we have seldom had the breaks in Europe and to a degree you make your own luck. Some excellent saves, last ditch blocks and of course poor finishing saw us home.
I had the interesting experience of sitting beside a Swiss family who were touring Scotland and wanted to come and see Celtic play. They visited Oban to Mull and the Highlands before arriving in the east end of Glasgow. The couple and their two children got into the spirit of things and enjoyed the game. What was telling though was way a neutral and astute observer can spot the faults in a developing side like Celtic in an instant. Alexander, a native of Berne and follower of Young Boys of Berne actually asked me if ‘number 15’ (Kris Commons) was new to the team as he looked so disconnected from the rest at times. He also noted the seeming inability of our wide men to get a cross or corner past the first defender as well as the lack of real pace in the side. He did have praise for our centre backs and goalkeeper and of course our supporters. Izaguirre’s inconsistent positional sense was also noted as his foray’s forward often left gaps which the pacey Croatians tried to exploit. At one point in the second half as another poor cross led to a swift counter attack, Alexander exclaimed ‘What are they doing!’ as three Celtic defenders rushed to the wide right attacker leaving a man unmarked in the centre. One pass took out the defenders and only Craig Gordon’s brilliance and some pretty awful finishing prevented a goal.
I have always said that European football is the true measure of a team. In Europe you meet well organised and well coached teams who study you and look for weaknesses to exploit. Celtic clearly remain uncertain in the full back areas and much of Zagreb’s attacking play was aimed at exploiting this. Celtic are currently a Europa League level team and this has come to pass because good players have been sold and replaced with players of poorer quality. It is to be hoped that Ronny Deila can coach and organise the current crop of players and make them into a more effective unit than they are at present. Of course we all miss the Champions League but we aren’t up to that challenge at the moment and should accept that.
We now find ourselves in a decent position in the group, particularly with two games against FC Astra of Romania coming next. Zagreb and Red Bull Salzburg will surely take points of each other and if Celtic play well against FC Astra, we could be in a very strong position to qualify. Salzburg then come to Celtic Park in late November before we travel to Croatia to play our final group match against Dinamo Zagreb. Of course this is Celtic so we take nothing for granted but I am optimistic we could still be involved in European football when the New Year arrives.
Thinking back to some of our previous outings in the old UEFA Cup and indeed the Cup Winners Cup, we have had some pretty exciting games. I find it strange that some fans have the ‘Champions League or nothing’ mentality. We come from a nation the size of Norway and do well to even make the group stages of the Champions League given the huge disparity in finances between Celtic and most big European clubs. We should see all European ties as a chance to experience something different to the SPFL fare some find so stale.
Our away goals loss to Basle in 2002-03 seemed hard to take at the time but it was the start of the road to Seville. Of course the quality of the 2003 Celtic side is light years ahead of our current crop but Celtic fans should embrace this campaign and give it our best shot. There are good teams in the tournament such as Feyenoord, Everton and Spurs and the third placed Champions League teams will drop into the tournament in the New Year. There could be exciting ties ahead if we play our cards right and qualify from what is a tricky group. The knockout phase would be approached with more confidence if Deila has a more cohesive side by then. Too many of them still seem a little unsure of the overall pattern of play he wants to adopt. That should change in time as the players gel and the injuries clear up.
I look forward to seeing the powerful and confident John Guidetti play in Europe too in the New Year. It would be nice to think of him and a fit James Forest being further options for the manager. Our progress has been incremental and a little slow for many people’s liking but I remain optimistic that we can make a reasonable impression in this year’s Europa League. Despite the constant and childish sniping on programmes such as Super Score Board, the problems at Celtic are dwarfed by the struggles of the new Club and their Teflon manager who seems to get little criticism in the mainstream media despite some awful results. Some in the media seem desperate to see Deila fail and instead of talking up a good result for Scottish football talk of it merely buying Deila some time. Mr Keevins actually said tonight amid much sniggering from the panel of ‘experts;’ ‘Let's face it, Ronny Deila is most famous for taking his trousers off.’ His ignorance and mocking tones would hold more weight if he’d did his job properly during the collapse of Rangers instead of saying that investigating that mess was ‘above his pay grade.’ For your information Hugh, Ronny Deila took a small provincial club to a cup win, saved them from relegation and then made them Norwegian champions for the first time in 43 years. But of course research is probably above your pay grade too. We all recall your classic comments on the signing of Lubo Moravcic when you said of him…
"I don't know what I find more laughable; the fact that Celtic cannot find £500,000 from their biscuit tin to sign a proven talent like John Spencer, or the fact that they then spent £300,000 on one of Dr. Jo's old pals, the unknown Lubomir Moravcik!"
So as we approach the next games in the Europa League, I say to all Celtic fans, let’s embrace this and back the team to the hilt. You never know what the future holds. Just as Europe is the real test of a team’s ability, times when the team are struggling are a real test of a support’s dedication. We are renowned as great fans, let’s prove it.
Oh and Alexander, I hope that Celtic scarf keeps you warm in the Swiss winter. Come back to Celtic Park one day.