Alan Pattullo: Champions League riches more desirable than ever for Celtic
CELTIC manager Neil Lennon will know what is expected of him from his own supporters on Wednesday night as he prepares to take another step nearer the Champions League group stages.
It is a test the manager will relish and he has enough pressure bearing down on him to be unduly concerned by the needs of Scottish football.
But Celtic must carry a broad beam of expectation across their shoulders.
Motherwell will dip their toe into the Champions League pool first but few can imagine how Stuart McCall’s side might look to deal with such perennial European participants as Panathinaikos. Like St Johnstone, who lost 3-1 on aggregate to cash-rich Turkish side Eskishehirspor, their assignment looks a tall order, and no-one need tell Lennon about the threat of HJK Helsinki, who are in mid-season and have already played 19 league games. Dundee United, too, must engage with a powerful foe in the Europa League.
Few, including manager Peter Houston, will be fooled by Dynamo Moscow’s position at the bottom of the Russian Premier League after just three games.
They lost again at the weekend, this time to Zenit St Petersburg. But they have never been relegated from the top league in Russia and can count of Kevin Kuranyi, the former Germany forward, and Andrei Voronin, the former Liverpool striker.
Given the ructions that have befallen Scottish football over recent months, there is an extra requirement for Celtic to bring some light to the game.
The current co-efficient standings see Scotland ranked in 28th place, and only projected to head downwards. St Johnstone’s elimination saw them help Scotland’s case by a co-efficient score of 0.5. The value of a club reaching the group stages of the Champions League is highlighted by Cyprus’ position in the ranking table. APOEL Nicosia’s success last season, when they reached the quarter final of the competition after reaching the group stage for only the second time in their – and their country’s – history, has helped take Cyprus up to the 13th place. It is in these loftier areas where Scotland could once be found before a decline set in. Such a downward spiral is hardly likely to be halted by the new economic climate triggered by Rangers’ demise last season.
The reality of the Ibrox side’s own situation means they will not have to worry about such terms as co-efficient for some time to come. Ally McCoist’s side only just managed to overcome Brechin City in the Ramsdens Cup yesterday, in a clash which underlined their new status. The burden has fallen on other clubs, and Celtic will be under no illusion as to what it means to a country that requires the addition of some soothing balm after such a chaotic period in its football history.
Celtic’s own welfare, too, could hinge on a European run, preferably one involving the Champions League group stages. The inability of Rangers to progress further than the third qualifying round of the Champions League last August is reckoned to have been the moment when Craig Whyte began to shift very uneasily indeed in his seat. This was because he knew just how large a gulf there is in income streams between the Champions League and the Europa League, where Rangers failed to go further than a single round as well. The die was cast that evening in Sweden.
For Whyte, the game was up as soon as the final whistle blew in Malmo, where nine-man Rangers fell to 2-1 aggregate defeat against their Swedish opponents. Thankfully, the failure of Celtic to reach the group stage will not produce such catastrophic results. But Lennon knows his hopes of adding to the signing of goalkeeper Fraser Forster depend on overcoming not just Helsinki, but whoever would then stand in their way in a qualifying round play-off.
At present, with Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell having made an appeal last week for fans to buy season tickets, the manager looks more likely to lose players than add to them. Reports have linked Manchester United with a move for Victor Wanyama, one of the brightest stars in the Scottish football firmament last season. Juho Makela was never quite one of those during a spell with Hearts, but he is one of the principal dangermen in the Helsinki ranks.
Lennon, though, will have covered all the bases. He is haunted by previous exits in Europe, particularly a Champions League elimination at the first hurdle against Braga two seasons ago. Almost from the moment the league was won last season against Kilmarnock, way back in April, Lennon has spoken of the need to be ready for the challenge of the Champions League qualifiers. In the media room at Rugby Park, he talked of making sure the pre-season programme was tailored to ensuring the side was as prepared as it is possible to be. Even as he spoke, who could have imagined Scottish football’s landscape would change to the extent that while Celtic look to prolong their life in European football’s elite club football competition, Rangers are dusting themselves down after a hard-won victory in the Ramsdens Cup. The lowering of ambitions at Ibrox cannot be allowed to impinge on Celtic’s own horizons.
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