Saturday, 2 September 2017

Jousting with Giants

Jousting with Giants

As summer fades and the autumn days arrive we turn our thoughts to the Champions’ League group stages and for Celtic they bring a mixture of glamour and possibility. Celtic’s group contains two of the biggest and most powerful clubs in European football in the shape of PSG and Bayern Munich. It also contains the respected but more modest RC Anderlecht. The realities of facing the so called elite of European football can be tough for sides like Celtic as the financial clout of Bayern and PSG mean that they can fill their squads with some of the best players from around the world

Paris Saint Germain was bought in recent years by the Qatar Sports Investment company and huge sums have been spent securing the services of players like Silva, Alves and Neymar. So much so that UEFA have begun investigating the club under their financial fair play rules which state that clubs should aim to break even in fiscal terms. The club currently has a turnover of around half a billion pounds a year and is ranked in the top six wealthiest clubs in the world. Celtic will face players of the quality of Thiago Silva, Danny Alves, Angel Di Maria, Neymar and Kyilan Mbappe when PSG arrive at Celtic Park on match day one. The Parisians have started their French league campaign with three straight wins, scoring 12 goals in the process and will be a formidable test for Celtic.

The Paris club have had their problems with supporters’ behaviour in recent years. Older Celtic fans will remember their match at Celtic Park in the mid 1990’s when we were treated to the bizarre spectacle of the PSG fans brawling among themselves in the corner of the North Stand. These long standing tensions in the PSG support are political and cultural and came to a head when rival factions clashed and a young fan was killed. The Boulonge Boys, (known as ‘Kobistes’) are known to espouse far right views in banners and chants. They traditionally turn their wrath on the more multi-cultural ‘Auteuils’ groups among the PSG support and they in turn give as good as they get. The death of Boulonge Boys member Yann Lorence in 2010 seemed to calm things for a while and the courts demanded PSG take action to curb these excesses. PSG acted recently to stop such groups purchasing blocks of tickets for sections of the ground and banned certain better known members of the ultras group from the stadium but the divisions among their support continue simmering just below the surface.

Like PSG, Bayern Munich present a formidable challenge to Celtic and the Bundesliga Champions are packed full of class players such as Robben, Lewandowski, Neuer, Ribery, Hummels, Goetze and Thomas Mueller. They are currently on a run of 5 consecutive titles in Germany and bring that mixture of power, technique and organisation to their play. They’ve been over the course so often that nothing much will phase this battle hardened and effective squad. In 20 ties with German opposition in Europe Celtic has won just 3 so there will be an air of realism around when they come to Glasgow.

Anderlecht are a much more attainable challenge for the Hoops and have had a stuttering start to their league season winning just one of their opening five games and sitting in eleventh place in the table. Their squad is made up of mostly Belgian players with a smattering of Africans. They are no mugs however and Celtic will need to put in good performances to overcome them. The Belgian League is rated 8th in UEFA’s coefficient table which gives some indication of the standard there. The SPFL is rated 26th and only Celtic’s efforts in recent years have stopped it sliding further down the rankings.  That being said Celtic should be targeting Anderlecht as the club they aim to take most points from. I’m sure Brendan Rodgers is thinking similar things as his target of European football after Christmas would most likely be achieved by a third place finish and a slot in the Europa League. It will be far from easy but we should approach all the group games with no fear and give it our very best shot.

We are not without hope of taking something from the big guns in the group especially at home. Bayern fought out a rear-guard action at Celtic Park in the Martin O’Neil era and seemed delighted to escape with a 0-0 draw. That Bayern side was packed with international stars such as Ballack, Kahn, Schweinsteiger and Lizarazu but Celtic fought them every inch of the way and might have snatched a famous win. I can still recall their players punching the air and hugging after the final whistle as if they’d achieved some great feat. PSG too, for all their opulence, are not invincible and Celtic Park will be rocking when they arrive in a week or two. Rodgers will do his homework and set the team out to try and get a result against these sides and there is always a chance when that support roars and raises the players to new levels.

Teams of the calibre of Barcelona, AC Milan, Manchester United, Juventus, Real Madrid and Benfica have all rolled up in Glasgow’s east end with fanfares ringing in their ears only to head home with their tails between their legs. Nothing is impossible in football and for all their wealth and superstars; it remains eleven men against eleven. Of course Bayern and PSG will need to perform under par and Celtic rise to the occasion but in all my years of watching Celtic in Europe I never go to a game thinking we will lose. There is always the possibility of a surprise and that factor is what makes football the fascinating and occasionally unpredictable game it is.

There’s a magical feeling on those big European nights at Celtic Park and even though in footballing terms we are jousting with giants, we have brought enough of them down over the years to give us a glimmer of hope. Celtic fans are a realistic bunch these days and know how difficult this group will be but they want to show Europe again that fantastic and fervent support which many of the rich clubs around Europe can only dream of. They also want to show that Rodgers’ current team is a vibrant and effective young side which can play decent football. We may not have the financial wealth of those clubs in the big leagues but we have the riches of a wonderful European heritage and a support which is truly world class.

We’ll shortly begin this fascinating European journey again and I for one can’t wait. We’ll see some great players at Celtic Park and pit our wits against some top coaches. Our young side will continue its education and surely learn much from playing club football at the very highest level.  The spectacle of a full Celtic Park under the lights on a big European night remains one of the great sights in sport and when that outstanding support fuses as one with the team they make for a potent combination.

Whatever happens we’ll be right behind the Bhoys and giving 100% to drive them on and lift them in those difficult moments when they need us most. These are great days to be a Celtic fan and we live in hope that our Champions League adventure will give us more memorable nights to add to the long list of games which have gone before.

We still have dreams and songs to sing.

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