HAVING cause to reflect on a European campaign before it is formally concluded can only be a source of dismay for Celtic.
Their final Champions League fixture against Barcelona at the Nou Camp on 11 December is now diminished in significance, the quest to avoid the club’s lowest-ever group stage points total the only tangible incentive for Neil Lennon and his players.
But, as stark as their position at the bottom of Group H appears in the cold light of day, with just one win and two goals from their first five games, it should hardly be a source of complete bewilderment.
Celtic went into a tougher Champions League section than they competed successfully in last season with a less accomplished squad, following the summer departures of Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and, to a lesser but still notable extent, Kelvin Wilson.
The reinforcements recruited by the club, with the exception of Virgil van Dijk, have struggled to make a telling impact at Champions League level this season. And even Dutch defender van Dijk, so impressive for much of the campaign so far, was among those most culpable in Celtic’s 3-0 home defeat to AC Milan on Tuesday night which ended their hopes of European knockout phase football in either the Champions League or Europa League.
There will be ample compensation for Celtic in the wake of their elimination, coming in the shape of another healthy payment from Uefa for their participation in the group stage of the elite tournament. Lennon will hope to see some of it diverted towards the player recruitment budget for next season’s Champions League tilt.
It also remains to be seen if mainstays of the last two European campaigns, such as goalkeeper Fraser Forster, will stick around or be tempted to follow Wanyama and Hooper into the English Premier League. As he takes time to properly assess his personal situation, Forster insists that Celtic’s efforts against Milan, Barcelona and Ajax should be placed in a more forgiving context by those who analyse a European quest which began in the second qualifying round back in July.
“Although we are really disappointed now, overall it’s got to be massively positive,” claimed Forster. “We lost a few players in the summer and we recruited a few, so we’ve gone through a bit of a transformation of our team.
“People have come in and done really well and I think we’ve grown as a team. We knew we had been drawn in a fantastic group full of top-quality teams and we always knew it would be tough.
“But we were delighted with the draw because these are the big games that we all want to play in. It’s been a fantastic stage for everyone and I feel we will leave the competition with a lot of credit.
“I think we have established Celtic as a Champions League club again in the last two years. We are proud of what we’ve done in the competition. It’s obviously very disappointing to go out but we only had two and a half weeks off during the summer.
“We’ve been preparing for the Champions League since the back end of May, the back end of June. We’ve worked hard and got through the qualifiers, which were not easy, and I think we showed what we can do in the group games.
“The points tally doesn’t probably represent how we have played in the games. But it’s obviously important to pick up points in the Champions League as well as give a good account of yourselves.”
Asked if Celtic will need to strengthen their squad significantly to perform better at Champions League level, Forster suggested that a lack of good fortune had played as much of a role in their failure to progress as any lack of quality.
“There are obviously a lot of teams with far bigger budgets than us in this competition,” he added. “We’ve gone about the games well but we’ve maybe lacked that little bit of luck needed at this level – luck that we maybe had last season.
“Even against Milan, we had a few deflected shots that could have gone in. We’ve lost goals to deflections ourselves this campaign so, on another day, the picture could have been different. Maybe it’s just that little bit of luck we’ve missed, but we should be proud even if we’ve not got the points we deserved.
“I think getting into the group stage itself is success for Celtic. It’s financially very rewarding for the club and it’s good for the players too. It’s been fantastic exposure for us and we’ve all benefited from what we have done.
“We’ve come off the pitch against some of the best teams in Europe and are disappointed to have lost. This is the competition we all dreamed of playing in when we were kids and we come off feeling very proud. Okay, we’ve lost 3-0 to AC Milan but everyone knows it wasn’t a 3-0 game. We were just a bit unlucky and, on another night, it could have been different.
“We conceded two really poor goals from set plays. The third one doesn’t matter so much because, by then, we were chasing a way back into the game. We left one-on-one at the back and they took their chance. But we have to take a lot of positives out of the game because we created a lot of chances. On another day they would have gone in but it just didn’t happen.
“I don’t know if it’s realistic to keep expecting us to punch above our weight in the Champions League but we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do well at this level.
“I think every team that’s gone off the pitch against us would tell you that they’ve had a tough game from us. Nobody would say they’ve had an easy game against us in this competition. So I don’t think we are massively punching above our weight. We should hold our heads up high and take the positives.”