Brendan Rodgers: Celtic '˜nowhere near' Champions League elite

Played 12, won one, drawn 3, lost eight. Goals scored 10, goals conceded 34. The bare statistics of Celtic on the field in the Champions League group stage under Brendan Rodgers tell their own sobering story.

The scoreboard tells the story of a disappointing night for Brendan Rodgers side in their final Group B match. Celtics defeat by Anderlecht, however, was not enough to stop the Parkhead side from qualifying for the Europa League. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

The more palatable numbers for the Scottish champions, of course, are on the cheques they receive from Uefa simply for participating in the tournament and which helped them achieve club record revenue of over £90 million last season.

Regardless of how much of those funds Rodgers is allowed to utilise in the transfer market, however, the Celtic manager is confronted by the reality of a gap between Europe’s elite and his own squad which is nigh on impossible to bridge.

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“At this level, we are nowhere near it,” was Rodgers’ frank admission as he reflected on Tuesday night’s 1-0 defeat against Anderlecht at Celtic Park.

“I am pretty clear where we are at as a squad and I am also realistic about what we can bring in. The challenge here is always to push and be the very best we can be, despite the resources we have. We have to find a way to try to represent Celtic and represent the nation the best we can.

“It is very difficult. We will always rely on the collective, we will always rely on the team. There won’t be one player for us at this level who is a massive standout. Our star is the team. That is the way it will always be.”

For the first time in 10 group-stage appearances in the Champions League, Celtic lost all three of their home fixtures this season. Their 3-0 victory over Anderlecht in Brussels back in September, however, ensured they still did enough to finish third behind Paris Saint-Germain and 
Bayern Munich to claim a place in the last 32 of the Europa League.

But the manner of their defeat against the Belgian champions on Tuesday, when they were outmanoeuvred and at times outclassed, has dampened optimism about how far they might be able to go in Uefa’s secondary tournament.

Celtic will be unseeded in Monday’s draw, with several European heavyweights as potential opponents. Rodgers accepts the difficulties that lie in wait but has backed his players to give a far better account of themselves when the two-legged tie on 15 and 22 February comes around.

“We will play against a tough opponent whoever we play,” he added. “Let us learn the lessons from the six games we have had in the Champions League group. But our players have absolutely earned the right to go into the Europa League after Christmas.

“We want to be better, we want to improve. We have made strides in the last 18 months which have been incredible really. We have qualified for the Europa League last 32 where the club hasn’t been for a while but are disappointed we lost the game against Anderlecht.

“That is a really good sign for me. It is good that we put that demand on ourselves to be better. When it comes around in February we will be better again.

“It is a brilliant achievement for us to get there, we have to be clear about that. We saw the level that even Anderlecht are at and the quality that they have. For us to come through the group and get into the Europa League is a big achievement for us. 
We had some good performances.

“We played really well against Bayern Munich at home. Away from home we got the win against Anderlecht which has now be shown to be a fantastic result. We have had some lessons along the way as well. But for us, where we are at domestically, we should take huge pride as players and as a club to be in the Europa League in February. But it is also dovetailed along with the work that is required to be competitive at this level and that will always remain very difficult 
for us.

“If you are going to compete, then, of course, it is about quality. But I don’t want to be too negative. We are disappointed that we lost on Tuesday, but how we stuck in there was good. That mentality that we have built up over a period of time got us through the game.”

With Celtic fortunate the scoreline was still blank after a dominant first half by Anderlecht, Rodgers was proactive in addressing the situation with a double substitution. His decision to hook Scott Sinclair and Stuart Armstrong, replacing them with Olivier Ntcham and Tom Rogic, effected an improvement, despite Anderlecht taking the lead through Jozo Simunovic’s own goal.

While he joked that “maybe it shows I picked the wrong team”, Rodgers also savoured the challenge Tuesday night posed.

“I enjoy that side of it, the in-game management,” he said. “It was getting away from us in that early stage of the game. It is too late if you are 1-0 down and they have got momentum. I could see very quickly the rhythm of the game.

“We weren’t passing it well enough. We were getting rid of it instead of passing it and there is a huge difference. You have then got to change the structure of it to keep it together and at least get through to half-time at 0-0 and then make changes and bring in two players who can keep the ball better than the two players who came off were doing.

“So that allowed us to be better in the second half and enjoy longer spells with the ball than we had. It also allowed us to play the shape we wanted to. We lost the own goal. We could have been better in that moment. But we stayed calm. We knew if we had conceded another one then we would have been under real pressure.

“Anderlecht didn’t have too many opportunities after that and we had a couple of chances we could have done better with ourselves. But it is job done and see you in February.”