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Glenn Gibbons: Celtic’s Champions League route

Charlie Mulgrew promotes Celtic's return match against Shakhter Karagandy in which the Scottish champions must claw back a two-goal deficit. Picture: SNS

Charlie Mulgrew promotes Celtic's return match against Shakhter Karagandy in which the Scottish champions must claw back a two-goal deficit. Picture: SNS

Michel Platini has attracted some justifiable criticism during his tenure as president of Uefa, but Celtic should perhaps send him an annual ­tribute, after the fashion of medieval barons who have been favoured by an all-powerful king.

It was, after all, a brainwave by the Frenchman which affords Scotland’s representatives the opportunity to recover from even the shameful 2-0 defeat by Shakhter Karagandy in midweek and still reach the group stages of the Champions League.

The Platini device is known as the Champions Route and it was instigated by the president to allow the title holders from the smaller, weaker countries around the continent to qualify for the lucrative phase of the premier tournament without having to overcome ­opponents who have finished third or fourth in the strongest leagues.

He had initially expressed his ­disapproval of a format which permitted countries such as England and Spain to have four teams in the Champions League – making a mockery of the name of the tournament – but had failed to garner the votes needed to restructure through pruning.

It is one of the hidden, bountiful by-products of a slipping co-efficient that, no longer the beneficiaries of automatic qualification, the Scottish champions in the pre-qualifying are at least allowed the chance to face the winners of lower-rated leagues. Celtic fans will readily recall their suffering of a few years ago, when, as runners-up to Rangers, they had to try to reach the groups in the European competition by beating Arsenal.

Whether or not Neil Lennon’s players are capable of taking advantage of what might be called a repechage remains to be seen. Those who have dismissed last Tuesday’s setback in Astana as a freak result that will be comprehensively overturned in Glasgow on Wednesday may well be vindicated, but it would be a dangerous assumption to support with their own money.

Even against the so-called lambs of the modern game, a pre-match ­requirement of at least three goals ­without reply is a perilous objective. It becomes even more formidable by ­consideration of the number of poor players at Lennon’s disposal.

Some allowance may be made for the general uncertainty of the central defenders, Virgil van Dijk and Steven Mouyokolo, since one was a debutant and the other a maiden in Europe. Even so, they should have the pedigree not to look as amateurish as their opponents.

The left-back, Emilio Izaguirre, may have enjoyed an exceptional first season with Celtic, but, in the two years since, he has been regressing towards irretrievability. As a defender, he must give the club’s supporters the heebie-jeebies; in forward areas, his cheap concession of possession makes him an unaffordable liability in Europe.

Charlie Mulgrew’s elevation to player-of-the-year status in 2012 is simply the latest stain on the frequently blemished record of the Scottish football writers, while the relative novice, James Forrest, has potential but much to prove.

The apparent reluctance of the Celtic board so far to sanction costly ­recruitment is more likely to derive from experience than parsimony (very few purchases prove to be as rewarding – in every way – as Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper) and it is true that only those directly involved in the business can have any idea of the difficulties and complexities of negotiating and completing transfers in the modern game.

Even so, chief executive Peter ­Lawwell and his fellow directors are unlikely to be absolved in the event of failure to carry out the necessary remedial work on Wednesday. The onset of collective fever in the ranks in such adverse ­circumstances does not allow the possibility that even a so-called marquee signing or two in the week before the first leg might have made no difference.

The history of football is strewn with exorbitantly-priced, headline-making flops, while one of the sport’s most enduring irritants is the tendency among observers to make heroes out of players who are not actually on the field.

John Whittier would have been unaware that he was coining the supporter’s anthem when he wrote, “For of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: ‘it might have been’.”

Black affair shows lack of sense

Whatever the outcome of the Scottish FA’s investigation into Ian Black’s alleged skirmishes with the bookmakers, the affair is less intriguing as an example of naughtiness than it is as a guide to the soundness of the average professional’s judgement of the game.

There has been a predictable stampede of widely varying characters gushing with the “revelation” that, in the business of investing in the law of probabilities, the Rangers midfielder is not an isolated case. Considering the newspaper column inches and the television and radio air time that has been dedicated to chronicling the more lurid and sordid instances of players’ extravagances in ­pursuit of a coup down through the decades, their testimony is unlikely to have left the football community paralysed with shock.

In terms of the sensational headline, very few (and Black would certainly not be among them) would offer a challenge to Wayne Rooney, who a few years ago accumulated a £700,000 liability with the commission agent introduced to him by fellow England ­international Michael Owen.

The Manchester United forward is clearly an extreme case, but one of a seemingly endless stream to have rippled through the public consciousness. And in all of these narratives, there is not a single news item recording a player who has taken early retirement on the back of a fortune acquired through betting on football.

As with jockeys, the punting prohibition was introduced with a view to minimising the possibility of skulduggery among “insiders.” History tells us, however, that it might just as well have been framed to protect them from themselves.

 

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