A “milestone”, as the Irishman was willing to present it, might have been achieved with Celtic reaching the Europa League at the expense of Anderlecht last night. Yet so out of sorts were the Scottish champions against their freewheeling Belgian opponents, it became hard to imagine the tournament scheduling proving any more than a temporary millstone for Rodgers’ men.
There might be attempts to explain away the runaround that Anderlecht gave Celtic as owing everything to the fact that Celtic had to do no more than avoid a three-goal defeat to finish above the Brussels club in Group B. That in itself, though, could not suffice as the reason for Celtic appearing so skittish and second best against a team that can be considered on their level.
Anderlecht last season reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League, and it was only in extra time of their last-eight tie that the eventual winners Manchester United saw them off. They are precisely the sort of side that could lie in wait in Monday’s draw for the last 32, and Celtic provided no indication that they are not precisely the sort of side that could cause them all manner of difficulties.
Especially with Celtic appearing to have lost the ability to win home games in Europe in the thick of tournaments – as opposed to the qualifiers for them. Their meagre three-point haul in Group B makes them one of the lowest ranked of the eight Champions League drop-outs. As a result Celtic will be unseeded for Monday’s draw – the fate of the 12 second places from the 12 Europa League groups, and the four lowest-placed third-place Champions League teams.
For the first knockout stage of the Europa League they will be at home in the first leg played on 15 February, with the return a week later. A number of the other seeds have yet to be settled but, as it stands, facing them that night could definitely be Arsenal, AC Milan, Atletico Madrid, Lazio, Villarreal or Red Bull Salzburg. Among the other likely seeds are CSKA Moscow, Sporting CP, Steaua Bucharest, Real Sociedad, Dynamo Kyiv, Napoli and Braga. Not one of these sides would probably expect to have their interest in the competition ended by Celtic on the evidence of a Champions League campaign that has brought tough-to-watch defeats by Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and, last night, Anderlecht.
Indeed, the loss to the Belgians means that a home European group stage win continues to elude Rodgers and was last achieved with the streaky 1-0 victory over Dinamo Zagreb in the Europa League group stages under Ronny Deila. Also the last time Celtic progressed out of a European section until last night.
Deila’s side then lost to Internazionale in the last 32. Unless next Monday’s draw is mighty kind, no great store will be placed on a different outcome this time around.