SELDOM has what was supposed to be a relatively meaningless fixture turned out to carry so much resonance.
Celtic may already have been eliminated from Europe before they kicked off in the Nou Camp on Wednesday night, but the reaction to their 6-1 annihilation by Barcelona has been no more forgiving for that.
Neil Lennon, having delivered his own, damning indictment of his players’ dismally insipid display against the Catalan giants, now finds his own part in one of the most chastening defeats in Celtic’s history coming under intense scrutiny. Justifiably proud of his achievements in revitalising Celtic since succeeding Tony Mowbray as manager almost four years ago, it hurt Lennon deeply to see his CV stained by a club record-equalling European loss.
For the purposes of perspective, it is perhaps worth pointing out at this juncture that Lennon’s European record bears favourable comparison with most in Scottish terms. Only eight managers of Scottish clubs have won more European club competition fixtures than Lennon – an illustrious octet of Jock Stein (47), Jim McLean (36), Scot Symon (28), Martin O’Neill (26), Alex Ferguson (23), Walter Smith (23), Dick Advocaat (22) and Eddie Turnbull (17).
Lennon has racked up 15 wins from his 36 European games as Celtic boss to stand ninth on the all-time list, ahead of other notable names such as Billy McNeill and Alex McLeish, at an early stage of his managerial career.
The problem for Lennon this season has been that he managed to add just one win to that tally during the group stage of the Champions League, set against five defeats and the concession of 14 goals in a section comprised wholly of former European champions.
The painful truth for the club whose moment in the sun with club football’s greatest trophy is now 46 summers ago is that the gulf between them and Europe’s elite has never been more difficult to bridge. Celtic are not a club who can ever be content with simply making up the numbers. In Champions League terms, however, simply participating in the lucrative group stage is an achievement in itself under their current circumstances.
They have reached the last 16 three times in the past eight seasons, a stage of the tournament which possibly represents their glass ceiling. But it has been their failure to compete with any real credibility in Group H this year which has been so hard for their supporters to take. Last season’s qualification from a group with Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow perhaps raised expectations this time around to an unrealistic level. With AC Milan and Ajax to face, the overall standard of opposition was higher, while Lennon’s own squad has unquestionably been diminished by the summer sales of Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper.
The performance against Milan in the San Siro on matchday one provided false encouragement of further success in many ways, Celtic missing good chances to take control of the game before slipping to a late 2-0 defeat. Since then, it has been a real struggle for Lennon’s men. They were not aided by captain Scott Brown’s petulantly incurred red card against Barcelona at Celtic Park on matchday two, earning him a costly three-match Uefa ban.
After battling to a narrow home win over Ajax, Celtic were well off the pace in losing the return fixture in Amsterdam. They were ruthlessly dealt with by AC Milan in the 3-0 home defeat which formally eliminated them from Europe, and Wednesday night harshly illustrated their current deficiencies at the highest level. Celtic’s away record in the Champions League proper remains an utterly wretched one, with 25 defeats resulting from 27 games on the road.
Lennon was alarmed before kick-off at the Nou Camp by how “quiet” his dressing room was. Could the lack of incentive, with further involvement in Europe already beyond them, have played a part in what Lennon described as the “half-hearted” efforts of his players?
Regardless of their mindset, such a tame capitulation is worthy of the condemnation it has generated. Barcelona, of course, are capable of dishing out a hiding to any side when the mood takes them. In the last couple of years, Levante (7-0), Ajax (4-0), Getafe (6-1), Mallorca (5-0) and Milan (4-0) have all left the Nou Camp bewildered by their free-flowing brilliance.
On Wednesday night, it was orchestrated magnificently by Xavi Hernandez, while Celtic were unlucky enough to find themselves on the wrong end of the occasion chosen by hat-trick headline act Neymar to announce himself as a Champions League heavyweight performer.
Yet, this was a Barcelona side without the services of leading lights Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and Dani Alves. Celtic’s inability to go toe-to-toe with them, as they did last season in trading 2-1 victories, was the most galling aspect of the evening for Lennon.
With the exception of Dutch central defender Virgil van Dijk, his summer signings have so far failed to indicate they are capable of being substantial performers for Celtic. Van Dijk’s compatriot Derk Boerrigter was among the most culpable in the Nou Camp, while the timid Teemu Pukki was substituted at half-time. Israeli midfielder Nir Biton appeared out of his depth, while Portuguese striker Amido Balde continues to look on from the sidelines most weeks.
During his post-match analysis, the manager spoke about continuing to rebuild his side with a view to another shot at the Champions League next season. But it remains to be seen how long Lennon can be satisfied by Celtic’s unrivalled domestic dominance, set against the financial reality of balancing the books at a club where Champions League group-stage involvement is a bonus rather than a guarantee.
That reality will bite again for Celtic when they begin their campaign in the second qualifying round on 15 or 16 July next summer, just a few days after the World Cup final takes place. Even in the ‘champions route’ path which has been negotiated successfully in the past two years by Lennon, there is the potential for a hazardous draw or one-off bad night for his own team which could eliminate them before most of Europe’s elite players return from their holidays.
Celtic will move on from the hurt and embarrassment they experienced on Wednesday. On current domestic form, they can go on to end this season with another league and Scottish Cup double to celebrate. But it is the painful outcome of a match which was to all intents and purposes meaningless that will probably be viewed as the defining moment of their campaign.