WHAT Celtic showed during their travails in the Champions League is that they have lost the capacity to survive at that level.
The art of survival is made up of many things, including concentration, discipline, ruthlessness and luck – and Neil Lennon’s team were without them, the very things that elevated them 12 months ago, which is no surprise because what happened 12 months ago should be considered the exception rather than the rule. There was a touch of freakishness about it. This is not to denigrate their fantastic achievement of getting into the last 16, but Celtic might play in 50 similar campaigns and not survive in the same way they did a year ago.
That campaign needs to be revisited because, in the post-mortem following Celtic’s midweek shellacking at the Nou Camp, it has been mentioned a lot. Celtic amassed ten points in the group stage last season and only three this time. They scored nine goals then and only three this time – a penalty, a lucky deflection and Georgios Samaras’ effort the other night that many Celtic fans may have missed because they were cowering behind the couch at the time.
They have gone backwards, for sure. But it’s too easy to say that the reason Celtic have performed poorly this time around is because they have lost key players in Gary Hooper, Victor Wanyama and Kelvin Wilson. Even when they had them, Celtic required so many things to go in their favour and, remarkably, more often than not, they did.
Consider the December day last year when Celtic beat Spartak Moscow 2-1 to seal their place in the last 16. Hooper opened the scoring that evening at Celtic Park. He scored from Celtic’s first shot on target, a continuation of a theme that was emblematic of their performance in the group stage and a theme that will never be repeated if we all live to be 100.
Hooper’s goal was Celtic’s eighth in six group matches. Or, to put it another way, it was Celtic’s eighth from only 23 attempts on target. Such ruthlessness is rare. Many sides can be clinical in one game, or perhaps two. But to have such a high conversion rate right throughout the group phase was remarkable. No other side managed it. Bayern Munich, the champions, were not as devastating in front of goal. Neither were Borussia Dortmund, the team that Bayern ended up beating in the final. Barcelona and Real Madrid with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were not as efficient in their finishing as Celtic were. There was almost a supernatural dimension to it. Celtic could sign a pair of £10 million strikers in time for next season and still not make a feast of crumbs in the way that they did last season.
The two games with Barcelona last season illustrated perfectly the difference between then and now. A year ago, Celtic averaged 27 per cent possession across the 180 minutes of football. They had nine attempts on the Barcelona goal compared to Barca’s 50. They had six on target compared to Barca’s 27. Barca hit the woodwork three times. And yet, over two matches, the aggregate score was 3-3. Celtic scored from 50 per cent of the efforts they managed to get on target. Think about it, 50 per cent. Had Barca been as clinical they would have scored 13 goals across the two games.
All of the things that happened a year ago almost had an air of the fairytale. Fraser Forster’s stunning saves, Tony Watt’s miraculous breakaway winner, the fortunate penalty that put Celtic into the last 16 in the closing minutes against Spartak. Efe Ambrose was focused. Scott Brown, pictured, was disciplined. Victor Wanyama was world class. Hooper was consistently excellent. Celtic didn’t give away many cheap goals, didn’t damage themselves with red cards. It was a campaign so full of consistency. They might never repeat it. They were certainly not going to repeat it after selling three of their best players.
Everybody talks, understandably, about the grievous loss of Hooper and Wanyama but Wilson’s leadership and uncomplicated defending was a big miss as well. Some say that Virgil van Dijk compensated for the loss of Wilson, but he didn’t. The partnership that Lennon wanted was Van Dijk and Wilson not Van Dijk or Wilson. Ambrose has his strengths but, when you put him in against Barcelona and AC Milan and Juventus, you offer up a little prayer that he will survive.
This season, Celtic have looked precisely what they are, a team put together for relative buttons trying to survive against sides whose budgets make your eyes water. There are two football rich lists on the go at the moment, one by Forbes and the other by Deloitte. One has Barcelona as the second richest club in Europe, the other has them in third. Not that it matters because the numbers are laugh-out-loud funny. Barca have at least seven players on a basic of £100,000 a week with Messi on more than £200,000 a week. Their playing budget is, of course, astronomical, just like everything else there.
In 2012, their shirt sponsorship brought in an estimated ¤30m, match-day income was ¤116.3m, their television revenue was ¤179.8m. Nearly half a billion euros flooded into the club. AC Milan’s turnover was ¤329m, their wage bill ¤183m. Mario Balotelli scored at Celtic Park, a small pay-back for the estimated ¤5.5m he makes every year.
Once in a blue moon, when the stars are perfectly aligned and Lady Luck is blowing kisses in their direction, Celtic will overcome all of those odds but, for them, the real challenge is making the group stage in the first place, not making the last 16. Investment is needed not so much to compete with the game’s behemoths – forget about it – but to fend off the Karagandys of this world, to make sure that teams that they should be able to beat don’t deny them a place in the group stage as Karagandy might have done had it not been for James Forrest’s last-ditch goal at Celtic Park. Of all their results in Europe this season, the scariest one was not in Barcelona and not at Celtic Park when Milan came to play.
It was in Kazakhstan where they lost 2-0. The questions the club should be asking now are not so much about how they can become more competitive in the Champions League group stage but how they can give themselves the best chance of getting there.
That is Celtic’s reality.