ANDREW Smith pieces together the lessons to be drawn from Celtic’s deflating Champions League campaign
1 - If you draw two clubs from the big four leagues then forget it
IN eight Champions League group campaigns, Celtic have never finished above a team from Spain, England, Germany or Italy. Indeed, for all their memorable results, which include victories over Manchester United, AC Milan and, last season, Barcelona, Celtic failed to prevent those teams winning the group.
On the three occasions Celtic have qualified for the last 16, their major scalp has been Portugal’s Benfica, a pedigree middle-ranking side, certainly. Otherwise, they have bettered teams from Russia, Ukraine, Belgium, Denmark and Norway. Creditable, but it demonstrated their modest place in the football food chain. A place that made the inability to derive more than three points from this year’s section that contained Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax not entirely surprising. The lowest points totals for the Celtic teams managed by Gordon Strachan and Martin O’Neill came, not coincidentally, when they had to face Manchester United and Villarreal, and Barcelona and AC Milan, respectively. In ten group campaigns, meanwhile, Rangers have only once finished above a team from one of the top four leagues, when they were third and Stuttgart were bottom in 2007-08.
“We punched above our weight with ten points last year and we can compete on the football pitch but in two of the games – Ajax and Barcelona away – we didn’t come anywhere near the standard that I wanted from the players,” Celtic manager Neil Lennon said. “The other four games were decent but we just lacked the quality at the end of the day and quality costs money. It fizzled out and there were ifs, buts and maybes.
“Teams like Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, Benfica and Napoli, who have spent vast amounts of money, £50m, £60m, £70m and it didn’t guarantee them last 16 qualification. We have spent £7m so we are the lightweights of the Champions League. There’s no question about that. We have to try to find a balance of bridging that gap between domestic football and Champions League. Now we did that last year but we are not going to do it every year. It’s just not feasible to add to the squad like every other club in the Champions League do.”
2 - People confuse worst result with heaviest defeat
AS horrendous, humiliating and heavy-duty as the 6-1 smashing in the Nou Camp proved for Celtic, not only was it not one of the worst results in their history, it wasn’t even one of their worst European results in the past two months. Only the second truly meaningless European game the club have played in the past five years, it’s irrelevance in the grander scheme of things is demonstrated by the fact that, were Lennon offered the chance to overturn the Catalan clattering or one of the defeats that preceded it to Ajax and Milan, Lennon would happily suck up the Barca disaster, because a different earlier outcome would likely have kept his side in Europe.
In terms of losing margin, the thumping was the equal to the 5-0 loss to Artmedia Bratislava in 2005. In no other respect is it down and dirty with that dismal night. That reverse cost Celtic Champions League group football, Wednesday night cost them nothing but pride. However, Lennon admitted it was a sore stain on his record and that of his players.
“To come away from the Nou Camp with as heavy a defeat like that will live a long time with them, and that is what I didn’t want them to have,” Lennon said. “I know there wasn’t anything riding on the game, maybe their competitive juices weren’t flowing as much as they would have done, I think that is evident from the intensity and the way they played.”
3 - Don’t lose an early goal at the Nou Camp
CELTIC were overdue a doing in the Catalan cathedral, where visiting teams are so often sacrificed on the altar of Barca’s brilliance. Indeed, before Wednesday, they were probably the only team to have played Barcelona nine times in the previous decade and never lost by three clear goals. Real Madrid lost 5-0 there only three years ago, Ajax 4-0 there this season, AC Milan by the same scoreline in the last Champions League campaign.
In choking the life from Barca to run them close in previous meetings, Celtic under Lennon have never been breached within the opening minutes as they were on Wednesday. Sometimes this has been more down to luck that design. In fact, only once in the previous nine meetings between the clubs have Barcelona enjoyed a half-time lead. Losing goals in clusters, as Celtic did late on in the first period to go 3-0 down at the break is equally not a good idea.
“We lost our positional discipline on far too many occasions and we were guilty of ball watching, which is something we have worked so hard on in the previous three games [against Barcelona],” said Lennon. “Everything we have worked hard for in those matches was really lacking on Wednesday night. Maybe I should have reminded them that we needed to play the British way and get the ball forward. Our two centre halves split when the goalie got the ball. I have never seen us do that against Barcelona, with our two full backs high and wide. ‘What are you doing?’ They were pressing in fours and fives with Busquets, then the rest were pressing us really high up the pitch. Their brains got scrambled after a while and they just ended up chasing the proverbial shadows.”
4 - “There is not a conveyor belt” to replace lost talent
THE thorny issue of sales and acquisitions has haunted Celtic in this Champions League campaign. While the contributions of Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and even Kelvin Wilson were gushed over last season as the last 16 was reached, of the replacements only Virgil van Dijk has attracted the same praise. The inability of summer signings Derk Boerrigter, above, Teemu Pukki, below, and Amido Balde to make any positive impression is generating much angst among the club’s followers. The issue over signings has become all too simplistic.
“[We at the club] are all realistic about it,” Lennon said. “Even if I had Wanyama, Hooper and Wilson I am not convinced we would have qualified from the group anyway. Last year we had a really good team I think, and as a manager the dream is to build on what you have, but we are in the kind of climate where you can’t – you have to sell. It is just a realism of where we are.
“I may never find another Wanyama for £800,000 and sell him for £12m, there is not a conveyor belt. Parky [chief scout John Park] can’t go and find these nuggets all the time. But, every now and then, we hope to get a player in who will get us a lot of money. We think Nir Biton is a good player who will develop into a resellable figure.
“Hooper got a couple of goals in the Champions League but, at the end of the day, it was because he was a really good player and a goal machine. He didn’t score buckets of goals in the Champions League. Yet, if we go to the Championship now for a replacement we are talking £7m. [Jay] Rodriguez went from Burnley to Southampton, two weeks after I went to watch him. It’s very difficult for us to even compete with Championship clubs. James Vaughan is being quoted at £6m now just because I have been down to look at him. It’s very difficult. There is money available but January is a difficult period. Can we agree a fee and get the right player in? That’s what we will endeavour to do for building for next year.
“I would think now we would see more of the new signings. It is my job to make them better, build another team. I am hopeful of giving some time to the younger ones too. We have already seen [Bahrudin] Atajic, [Darnell] Fisher, while Liam Henderson is coming through and Stuart Findlay doing well. But I can’t be blasé enough to say that. I’ve got a job to do and senior players to look after as well. If they’re good enough they’ll come through anyway.”
5 Leave the banners at home
THE Celtic support has long been talked up as one of the club’s strengths in the Champions League. In this campaign, their actions became an unwelcome distraction and weakened the club’s cause. The pre-match in Amsterdam was overshadowed by crowd disturbances and, even if Celtic fans were treated badly by the authorities, all that infantile banner stealing between their ultras and those of Ajax in the Glasgow meeting between the sides didn’t help.
There was then the Green Brigade’s ill-judged protest against the Scottish, Offensive Behaviour at Football Act before the European home game against AC Milan, when images of Willie Wallace and Bobby Sands were held up to make the point that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.
Lennon accused those behind the political gesture of destroying the normally raucous atmosphere on a night Celtic lost 3-0. On Friday, the club were fined £42,000 for the banner display by a UEFA which now considers the club repeat offenders when it comes to “illicit” messages. Moreover, the build-up to last week’s Barcelona trip was dominated by news stories about the dispersing and banning of members of the Green Brigade in the wake of the vandalism and firework-throwing at Fir Park. Factions of the Celtic faithful require to return their focus to supporting their team, without harming the club.