Why Celtic in last 16 would be Champions League’s best underdog story

Another Group of Death for Celtic in the Champions League. Picture: Uefa via Getty
Another Group of Death for Celtic in the Champions League. Picture: Uefa via Getty
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If Celtic were to knock off either of Paris St Germain or Bayern Munich, it would be the toughest road any team has travelled to reach the knockout stages of the Champions League, writes Craig Fowler

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First reactions to the draw could largely be summarised by “well, that’s that” as far as qualification to the Champions League knockout stages was concerned for Celtic fans.

Bayern Munich have reached the last eight of the Champions League the past six seasons, with the last five of those campaigns seeing them finish as champions of Germany. PSG, meanwhile, though not reigning French champions, still finished with enough points (87) to have made them title winners in every single Ligue 1 season not already won by PSG since the competition was reformatted in 2001. Oh, and they’ve only went and signed bloody Neymar.

Yes, it’s safe to say Celtic finishing in the top two now looks an impossibility.

But then this is football. Expecting the unexpected is one of the many reasons we love the sport. Underdog stories happen all the time, from Greece winning the Euros, Zambia being crowned African Cup of Nations champions, and of course Leicester City’s incredible run to the English Premier League title. Surely there’s a team, or even several teams, who’ve come out of a Champions League group stage tougher as this one?

Spoiler: there isn’t.

However, there was one Cinderella story which may give Celtic fans the faintest glimmer of hope.

At first glance APOEL Nicosia’s 2011-12 Champions League draw looks positively barrier-free in relation to Celtic’s - Porto, Zenit St Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk. If Celtic were dealt that hand on Thursday then even Peter Lawwell would surely have dropped his poker face and performed a little jig around the Monaco studio where the UCL draw was taking place.

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Taking context into account, the Cypriot side’s campaign was remarkable. First of all, APOEL are not Celtic. They average around 10,000 supporters across the league season. And even though Cyprus has a higher coefficient than Scotland (shock) and did so in 2011 (double shock), there still hadn’t been a side from the one million-strong nation to reach the knockout stages to that point, something both Celtic and Rangers had achieved.

Then there’s the three opponents they came up against. Shakhtar have lost a little of their luster in recent seasons, but in 2011 they were coming off a Champions League campaign where they reached the quarter-finals before losing to Barcelona, who would go on to win the competition. Zenit had failed to qualify for the group stages the season before, like Anderlecht in Celtic’s Group of Death, but they were coming to the end of a Russian season that would ultimately crown them league champions. As for Porto, while they weren’t quite the side who won the tournament under Jose Mourinho, they had only just won the Europa league three months previous. All three represented formidable opposition and APOEL should have stood no chance.

Not only did they compete. Not only did they qualify for the last 16. They did so by winning their group.

The fairytale wasn’t finished there. They then knocked out French giants Lyon in the last 16, setting up a quarter-final meeting with Real Madrid, which unfortunately would see the end of their journey, losing 8-2 on aggregate. All in all, it may be the most unlikely run by any team in the history of the Champions League since the restructuring of the old European Cup. Even Celtic’s 2012-13 qualification alongside Barcelona, at the expense of Benfica and Spartak Moscow, ranks among the best underdog tales.

So would a last 16 place, at the expense of either PSG or Bayern Munich, represent an even better story should Celtic pull it off? Quite possibly. APOEL pale in comparison to Celtic in terms of club size, but then they never came up against what you would describe as a true blue-chip club (your Barcelonas, Manchester Uniteds, Bayern Munichs etc) until they faced Real. PSG may not be traditionally belong in the same company as those mentioned, but the spending they’ve done on their squad this summer, not to mention their presence as a quarter-final side last season, would suggest they’ve joined such an exclusive group.

Celtic have some terrific European moments in the Champions League over the past 25 years. Getting past either of Bayern or PSG this campaign would perhaps become the most special one yet.

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