Why Celtic need the Champions League more than ever
Providing your mind is neither muddied with sectarianism or blinded by a biased stance of rivalry, you simply have to surrender and allow Celtic’s success, having last week qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League to wash over you. So to, must I insist, you show an appreciation for the sense of irony that materialised as the backdrop of their unexpected qualification: Their English counterparts, the obscenely rich Manchester City and Chelsea were both dumped out of the competition.
As an absolute bare minimum, Celtic’s qualification stands as a rare victory against those who practice the theory of buying their way to success with a limitless supply of money. For the likes of City and their ilk, this time its a matter of mo’ money mo’ problems.
When the draw for the Champions League groups were made in Monaco back in August, few beyond their loyal supporters predicted that Celtic would qualify for the next round. I immediately wrote their chances off, and surmised that avoiding coming bottom of the group would have been a realistic achievement. In fact, I couldn’t see where they would get any more than a possible 6 points, or the equivalent of 2 wins at home.
The basis for such a pessimistic outlook came from the other teams making up group G. Firstly –the best team in the world– Barcelona who never seem to fail to bring all their tippy-toe-tiki-taka brilliance. Next in line, Benfica who topped Manchester United groups last year. And if that competition isn’t tough enough, the group was rounded out by nouveau riche Spartak Moscow, who have spent lavishly in recruiting the likes of Emineke, Kim Kallstrom, and former hoops favourite, Aiden McGeedy for £10m.
In comparison, Celtic operate on a far more stringent budget. Forced by austerity that has swept over the Scottish Premier League throughout recent years. What makes Lennon’s achievements at Celtic all the more commendable is the financial reality that he now has had to work under. A far cry from the conditions that Gordon Strachan and Martin O’Neill were afforded. And despite the money and the adoration that O’Neill received while at the helm, he never made it past the group stage, while neither Strachan nor O’Neill ever returned a points tally of 10 from any of their european endeavours.
Given the financial context, it would be fair not to have expected Celtic to have progressed beyond the group stage. However, with the absence of the Old Firm, qualifying for the next round has become far more than just an exercise in happily defying the odds and keenly soaking up the admiration that has followed. It has become a necessity. Celtic needed this qualification, and they needed it more than ever. The Europa League simply would not have sufficed. They needed the qualification not just from a financial perspective –which is obviously critical– but they need it to further their own ambitions.
While it is easy to understand the indulgence of schadenfreude by many a Celtic supporter as their rivals, Rangers languish in the lower tiers of Scottish football, without the Old Firm Celtic lack the competition required for continuous improvement. And I try to say that with respect to the other SPL clubs. However, competing in what can safely be described as a 2 horse race over the last decade, which has now been reduced to just one with Rangers taking a visit to the glue factory, may well be fun at first, but, without the challenge of a least one fierce competitor, teams, players, professionals lose their edge. This is why the Champions League, beyond the fuzzy warm feelings of patting one’s back at a job well done, is now so critical to Celtic’s ambitions.
Remaining in the Champions League for at least another round and competing in Europe’s elite competition year in year out will also provide some sort of leverage when it comes to retaining the talented players Celtic players have recruited. Before their qualification, rumours were already circulating that Wanyama will be off to a top European club in January, and its remarkable how Gary Hooper is talked about almost exclusively in the past tense. Its as though he has already left, or that at the very least, his pending departure is inevitable. You would have to hope, and maybe this is just the naive romantic in me, that the allure of at least one more European game at Parkhead would be enough to delay their departure until beyond the January transfer window.
And what of Neil Lennon? While many of the players are brushing off the gaze from would be suitors, so too has Lennon become acutely more attractive. His stock having risen exponentially from the endorsement that comes from qualifying, while just yesterday, he revealed in what has now become a standard cliche, that he harbours Premier League ambitions.
For now, Celtic rightly deserve their day in the sun and all the accolades coming their way. Even the cringe worthy one from Snoop. On 20th of December the draw for the last 16 of the Champions League will be made, and I hope they can continue to defy the odds, especially if it happens to be at the expense of another big money club. When the journey does finally come to an end, at whatever stage that might be, Celtic will be brought back to down to earth with the realities of the day to day business of the SPL. An SPL minus the challenge of the Old Firm. At which point their next European escapade won’t come soon enough.