Celtic really don’t need one more scar from a European campaign as wretchedly disfigured as Frankenstein’s monster.Yet, short of a lightning reanimation in continental competition, come the end of their final Europa League Group A encounter in Istanbul’s Sukru Saracoglu Stadium this evening they will be sporting another eyesore to rival neck bolts.
The club’s 11 previous European group assaults across the past 15 years have run the gamut. In the four-team sections across both Champions League and Europa League, there have been second, third and fourth-place finishes. The points harvested from these six-game tests have ranged from ten to three, with qualification achieved on four occasions.
However, even in the most miserable campaigns, one fate has been avoided. Celtic have never failed to register a win in a European group. We are, though, surely about to witness an invidious slice of history.
Frankly, there isn’t a soul who would put tuppence on Ronny Deila’s out-of-contention side being able to secure victory in the ultra-testing Turkish home of a qualification-chasing Fenerbahce.
Not when, across all their group campaigns including this one, Celtic have achieved an away win only once in 35 attempts – against Spartak Moscow in the remarkable run to the Champions League last 16 by Neil Lennon’s side three years ago. Not when the ten-game winless streak in European competition proper – which discounts any qualifiers – that Deila’s men are on represents the longest such sequence in the club’s six decades jousting in the domain. And not when they failed to muster a win at home in the Europa League this season. Yet one more unwanted first for the club and its Norwegian manager.
There have been group tilts almost as sorry as this one, which Celtic no doubt wish had ended along with their faint hopes of qualification as a result of the defeat at home to Ajax a fortnight ago.
Tony Mowbray’s team never truly got going across the Europa League group stages in 2009. However, they put a little sheen on a disheartening experience by brushing aside Hapoel Tel Aviv in their final home group game… before becoming the first Celtic team in history not to lose after finding themselves 3-0 down with a 3-3 draw against Rapid Vienna in their final encounter.
In retrospect – with a clean sheet courtesy of a 0-0 draw in Hamburg – Celtic were possibly a little unlucky that season.
The same was true about Lennon’s first experience of leading Celtic in a group stage, which came in the Europa League in 2011. The high point may have been a 3-1 home win over Rennes, but the Irishman’s side came mighty close to adding to that one victory with commendable draws away to the Frenchmen and Udinese – who were also fortunate to escape with a 1-1 scoreline from Celtic Park.
Following two seasons scaling the heady heights of the Champions League last 16 with a perfect home record of six victories, Gordon Strachan’s Celtic needed a last-night face-saver in their backyard to prevent them being winless in the group stages of the competition in 2008. A fine 2-0 win over Villarreal didn’t disguise the exasperation over finishing bottom of their group, a fate to which they were condemned as a consequence of taking only a solitary point from two games against modest Danish side Aalborg.
Slack can be cut for Strachan’s team because they also happened to have the current Champions League holders, Manchester United, in their section. And when it comes to cutting a side significant slack, Martin O’Neill’s Celtic hardly flunked out in 2004 by finishing bottom of a section that pitted them against powerhouses Barcelona and AC Milan. Keeping such company meant they only tasted success courtesy of a 1-0 home win over Shakhtar Donetsk.
In O’Neill’s previous two Champions League campaigns, only Bayern Munich had left Celtic Park without their tail between their legs. The Bavarian behemoths had to manufacture a cagey scoreless draw to prevent Celtic ousting them. Solidity can rapidly give way to struggles when facing up to the continent’s best, though, and Lennon discovered that when his second and last Champions League campaign was another that produced a single victory. Squeaking through 2-1 against Ajax proved an exercise in papering over cracks. Then AC Milan inflicted a 3-0 reverse that represents Celtic’s heaviest home defeat in a European group tie, before a 6-1 mauling in Barcelona.
Yet, the fact that a team as modest as Molde could now prove as perilous to Celtic’s European prospects in a fashion that was once only the preserve of the absolute top-tier teams illustrates the club’s shrinkage in status on the continent.
There is no disgrace in losing a game such as they will face tonight with what is likely be a relatively inexperienced Cellic side. Even the club’s most successful teams of recent times would probably lose at the home of a European middleweight such as Fenerbahce.
The problems for Deila, and what really damns him in continental competion, are not the results against Ajax and the Istanbul side – assuming that a thumping defeat is avoided this evening.
These teams may well go on to win their leagues in the Netherlands and Turkey, two set-ups that are hardly of the backwater variety, in being ranked tenth and 11th in Europe respectively.
Instead, it is the home and away losses and ragged displays against Molde – a side that won’t even be in Europe next season after finishing sixth in the recently-concluded Norwegian summer league – that look like making this group campaign the most dire contested by the club. All too dire for Deila.