The primary fascination of the Champions League may be the high level of football that is its core function, but it also doubles as a monument to Uefa president Michel Platini’s sense of democracy.
Very few areas of what has always been an ill-divided world provide a professional or social environment in which the plutocrats and the proletariat share the same playground.
It was the Frenchman, celebrated as one of the most accomplished midfielders in history, who instigated the Champions’ Route, a means by which the winners of Europe’s smaller leagues would have a very achievable chance of making the lucrative group stage of the competition.
By offering such contenders the opportunity to play qualifiers against opponents of a similar background and resources, the Champions League proper in recent times has provided places for the likes of MSK Zilina, Hapoel Tel Aviv, Apoel Nicosia, FC Cluj, BATE Borisov, FC Copenhagen, Viktoria Plzen, Austria Vienna and, of course, Celtic.
While this passageway has been a financial boon to those who have negotiated a way through, however, it tends also to highlight the dichotomy between the wealthy elite and the hoi polloi. Even a glance at some of this week’s pairings and results reveals a chasm in wealth and power that is unbridgeable.
On Wednesday, when Bayern Munich hosted Viktoria Plzen, the Czech champions were on offer at 40-1 – to win a single match. By extension, it is legitimate to speculate that the odds against their actually capturing the title would be expressed in five figures. Paris St Germain, like Manchester City now in Middle East ownership in the form of the mountainously-rich Qatar Investment Authority, were 2-1 on for an away match, across the border against Anderlecht of Belgium. City themselves were also odds-on (8-11) for what would be considered by less affluent competitors to be a hazardous trip to face CSKA in Moscow. Both favourites justified their cramped prices.
When MSK Zilina of Slovakia made it to the group phase three years ago, they landed in a section with Chelsea, Marseille and Spartak Moscow and completed their campaign with no points from six outings and goals columns that aggregated 3-19.
These flirtations with the high life are, as a general rule, fleeting experiences for the blue-collar teams; what sustains the gap between them and the authentically well-off is the latter’s year-on-year access to revenue streams that arise out of affording the best-equipped players from all parts of the world and annually reaching the later stages of the Champions League, thereby toning up their financial muscle.
This virtually insurmountable advantage is like being forced to play in leg irons and that is enough of a handicap to lend merit to Celtic’s activities in Europe’s premier competition in the past two seasons.
Even if they were, this season, favourites to progress to the groups through each of the qualifiers they played (Cliftonville, Elfsborg and Shakhter Karagandy), these occasions represent nerve-testing challenges and have to be overcome. Nobody could claim to be comfortable, for example, watching them strain to overcome their Kazakh opponents in the play-off round.
Having achieved their primary objective, Neil Lennon’s side have once again demonstrated the kind of resolve and commitment that allows fighters to punch above their weight. Not even the most immovable supporter could argue that virtuosity is what distinguishes their work, but even the coaching fraternity’s most ardent disciples of flair and verve are pragmatic enough to acknowledge that there is more than one way to win a football match. Celtic’s duels with Barcelona alone have been studies in conflicting styles, exposing the celebrated Catalan team’s most obvious flaw – a resistance to adapting their philosophy to meet the singular demands of a given situation. In the three matches between the Scottish champions and Barca, the score stands at 4-3 to the latter, but two of those four goals were scored in injury time and a third, three and a half weeks ago, in the 76th minute after Celtic were down to ten men through the wayward Scott Brown’s red card.
The entirely creditable performance against Milan at San Siro produced a match they did not deserve to win, due to their failure to exploit threatening positions, but did not deserve to lose. In beating Ajax this week, Celtic merely enhanced a hard-won reputation for refusing to be subdued on their own turf.
It would be easy for anyone witnessing the collision with the Dutch to conclude that they were probably seeing the two weakest sides in Group H, each alarmingly careless in possession and profligate around the opposition’s goal. As Lennon’s team demonstrated last season, however, it does not necessarily follow that they will finish according to their seeding, in third and fourth spots.
By reaching the knockout phase a year ago, Celtic outplayed their ranking by two places, an extraordinary achievement matched only by Borussia Dortmund, who won their group. It is surely admissible to propose, though, that the Germans’ third-place ranking (behind Manchester City of England and Spain’s Real Madrid) does not equate to the Scots’ in relation to the Spanish, Portuguese and Russians of Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow.
The departures in the summer of two of their principal contributors to last season’s adventures, Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper, lends more merit to whatever they may achieve in their present campaign in Europe. But, while the club and the fans recently drew much encouragement and satisfaction from the yearly returns which showed Celtic to be in good financial shape, their prudent operation does not lift them into a higher bracket; by comparison with clubs from England, Spain and Germany, their reserves merely amount to an umbrella for a rainy day.