Disappointment is often found in that gap which exists between our expectations and reality. Watching Celtic playing in Europe in recent years has been a perfect example of this. Negotiating the preliminary rounds of European competition is fraught enough but the performances in the group stages of both the Europa League and Champions League in recent seasons have, for the most part, been poor. Most fans are well enough informed to know that it would take something special for Celtic to compete with sides like Barcelona, PSG or Real Madrid but when one considers Celtic’s 3-0 win at Anderlecht last season was the clubs first win in the group stages of European competition in 16 attempts it tells you something is wrong.
Supporters were of course full of hope after Brendan Rodgers arrival that at last we could mould a side capable of competing in the group stages of European football. His team glided through the Scottish game like a Rolls Royce in that unforgettable invincible season but results in Europe were at best patchy. The embarrassment of Red Imps away was put right as the team overcame Astana and Hapoel Be’er Sheva to reach the group stages of the Champions League. Two creditable draws with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City were the highlight of a campaign which pitched the Hoops into possibly their toughest ever Champions League group. A 7-0 battering in Barcelona was the low point as the team barely laid a glove on the Catalans. It was this timidity; this acceptance of their fate in some European ties which so annoys some fans. It’s as if they don’t believe they can compete. No one expects Celtic to win in the Nou Camp but Celtic teams of the past would at least go down with all guns blazing, not stand off and admire Messi and co rip you apart.
Rodgers second season saw Linfield, Rosenborg and Astana despatched as the team reached the Group stage of the Champions League again. An excellent PSG side destroyed Celtic home and away hitting a dozen goals in the process. Bayern won narrowly at Celtic Park in a match Celtic should have taken something from as did Anderlecht although Celtic’s win in Belgium saw them drop into the Europa League round of 32 where a fighting performance saw them beat Zenit St Petersburg 1-0 at home before another one of those timid, error strewn performances away from home saw them tumble out of Europe.
This season saw the side knocked out of the Champions League in the final qualifying round by an AEK Athens side they really should have beaten. Shocking defending at every goal the Greeks scored cost the club tens of millions of pounds and fans rightly questioned what the hell was going on with recruitment if teams with a fraction of Celtic’s turnover can locate and secure the services of decent central defenders. It didn’t help that Boyata was seemingly in a strop about not getting his big money move and we can speculate about what might have happened if he had played in Athens but the whole team looked jaded and in dire need of new blood.
So it was that Celtic found themselves in the same Europa league group as RB Leipzig, Red Bull Salzburg and Rosenborg. The narrow 1-0 win of Rosenborg at Celtic Park was Celtic’s first group stage win in European competition since they beat Dinamo Zagreb in 2014. It was also the first time Celtic had won an opening group game in all their years of competing in Europe. Up next was Red Bull Salzburg and some felt this was a tie Celtic could perhaps take something from. In reality this side had just won in Germany against their stable mates RB Leipzig and had in the past few seasons defeated the likes of Marseille, Real Sociedad, Borussia Dortmund and Lazio. They were also undefeated at their home stadium. This was always going to be a very tough tie. Celtic did well in the first half to snatch an early and defended reasonably well. Ball retention was poor though and this led to the team barely attacking the Austrians and as wave after wave of attacked flowed towards Craig Gordon you had that feeling something would give in the end. Salzburg is a good, dynamic young team but once more the inability of Celtic to do the basics well led to a predictable defeat.
Celtic now face a double header with German side RB Leipzig and defeat in both of these games would mean the campaign would almost certainly be over as Salzburg would most likely take care of Rosenborg home and away. It is vital Celtic pick up something on these ties with Leipzig so that they can at least enter the final two matches with something to play for. Salzburg and Leipzig share more than the same sponsor and the close links between the two clubs mean they will be doing Celtic no favours. European football is the big boys playground and is a harsh, unforgiving place. Celtic need to start performing at optimum level in these games and cut out the basic errors which so often kill our chances.
There is no point blaming individual players. We can all see that the team as a whole isn’t functioning well. The goals have dried up, the ball retention a problem against better sides and defending in crucial games is at best unpredictable. The team has in reality regressed which is a huge disappointment to fans who thought that the bold appointment of Brendan Rodgers heralded an era where Celtic would build from a position of strength and improve season on season. The loss of good players like Roberts, Armstrong and Dembele would be a blow to any team but it’s more than that, players who performed well in the past couple of seasons are struggling for form and confidence and that combination is making the team vulnerable domestically and in Europe. With vital games coming up, it is to be hoped the manager sorts out the problems and gets the team back to some semblance of the form they have shown in his first two seasons.
January’s transfer window is now looking like an important one as the team needs an infusion of energy. We’d all like to see one or two class players arrive who can go into the team and make a difference. This team is capable of more than they are showing at the moment and it’s up to the manager to bring that out of them. There is still much to play for at home and in Europe, if Celtic play to their potential and get stuck in we’ll have no complaints. It means so much to the fans and it should mean the same to the highly paid players who wear those famous hoops.
As a banner once read; ‘We’re in here for you – be out there for us!’