The conclusion was that while Celtic would claim two wins from their Group F assignments against Real Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk and RB Leipzig, Rangers would be good for only one victory in a Group A wherein they must keep company with Liverpool, Ajax and Napoli. These returns might sound hopelessly meagre. Ultimately, though, they could prove to be generous.
How football’s most prestigious club competition is increasingly reducing the Glasgow clubs to absolute also-rans doesn’t always seem to be fully grasped in these parts, for some reason. Of course, there was no disgrace in Ange Postecoglou’s men being overwhelmed by the competition’s holders and fierest continental foe as they lost out 3-0 at home to Carlo Ancelotti’s men. Especially when, for 50 minutes, Celtic actually made good on the Australian’s lofty aim of seeking to out-play and out-chance even the most intimidating opponents.
In contrast, it was certainly mortifying how supine Rangers proved throughout the 90 minutes in Amsterdam as Ajax tormented them to administer a 4-0 bleaching - to follow on from an indentikit slaughter at Celtic Park four days earlier. Yet, statistically, the two defeats slot neatly together in betraying the scraps the bitter rivals tend to be left chewing over when dining at the top table.
After this week’s losses, Celtic have two wins in 19 Champions League outings, and Rangers have one in 17. Delve deeper and, though Celtic have manufactured three last 16 finishes from 10 group stage campaigns, and Rangers won through to the knock-out stages once from the same number of such appearances, there are ample grim morsels within their tournament histories. For instance, Brian Laudrup and Paul Gascoigne never played together in a winning Rangers side in the unforgiving environment. Meanwhile, Henrik Larsson may be Celtic’s all-time leading European goalscorer but netted only four times in the group stage for the club.
I was jokingly scolded by my peers for my negativity in putting it to Postecoglou on the eve of Madrid’s visit that the Champions League has become a killing field for Scotland’s big two - a terrain in which Celtic now have failed even simply to score in seven of their past 10 home outings. He initially played along on that front - “is there any point in me turning up?” - before offering an acknowledgement. “I understand that, and the reality is, those are the facts,” said the Australian. “My job tomorrow night is to create optimism. If I do that, I’ll have achieved something.”
That objective was achieved - as illustrated by Postecoglou and his players being serenaded by the Celtic support at the conclusion of the Real reverse. The appreciation then garnered was borne of their courage and accomplishment in causing genuine problems for last season’s best side in Europe. This kernel is why their latest Champions League failure has been cast in a completely different light to what would appear a superficially similar outcome for Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side in the Netherlands. The Dutchman, unlike his Celtic counterpart, isn’t the most naturally charismatic figure. His shoulder-shrugging, post-match assessment essentially amounted to an admission Rangers aren’t good enough to compete at this highest level. Brutally honest, certainly, but the conclusion was akin to chucking more depressive, and flammable, materials on to a bonfire of the Ibrox club’s vanities. Vanities burnished by the club’s run to Europa League final.
The Rangers support puffed themselves up about this superb run proving irrefutably that they were real players in the continental arena. The reality is that nothing that happens in UEFA’s secondary competition does that. You need only look at the fact the team that vanquished them in Seville, Eintracht Frankfurt, were cuffed 3-0 at home by Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League this week. Rangers aren’t now so far removed from the team that carved a path to the Europa League decider. Only a fortnight ago they dug out a play-off win away to an, admittedly, wasteful PSV Eindhoven. However, in Europe last year, they won only seven of the 19 games they contested - all but their 4-2 miracle success away to Borussia Dortmund coming on their own patch. Celtic, in generally being considered to have gone nowhere fast in continental competition, posted six wins from 14 outings. Indeed, in coming up short in the Europa League group stages, Postecoglou’s side claimed nine points from a tougher section than the one that their Ibrox adversaries’ eight points allowed them to move beyond.
How all but the true elites fare in Europe can so often come down to whether a fair wind blows them along. Such climatic conditions are forever changeable. Celtic lost five of their six Champions League group games the season that followed them beating Barcelona en route to becoming the last Scottish club to breath in the rarified air of the last 16 stage, in 2012-13. Rangers were eliminated by FBK Kaunus in a Champions League qualifier a mere 10 weeks after they contested the 2008 UEFA Cup final.
Neither club dare lose next week if they are to retain serious prospects of making any impression in this season’s Champions League. Precedent, and current form, suggests they will have few backers to do so. A Celtic faithful buying-in to Postecoglou’s positivity consider Shakhtar Donetsk beatable by their team; not least because the war being waged on them by Russia means they must stage Wednesday’s ‘home’ encounter in Warsaw. Yet, in being fresh from thumping RB Leipzig 4-1 in Germany, Donetsk are patently not diminished by travel. Unlike Celtic, who have won precisely two of 30 Champions League away games. As for Rangers…well, Napoli’s 4-1 filleting of Liverpool in their Italian environs last night will embolden them for Tuesday’s trip to Ibrox. A ground where the home team have beaten sides from Europe’s big five leagues in the Champions League on, eh, two occasions across the three decades of the competition.
It is blithely trotted out that it is great to have two Scottish teams at this level again, as hasn’t been the case since 2007-08. In truth, though, it is the followers of all the other teams in this country that are likely to derive the most lasting pleasure from the local bullies having to take the sort of slaps they consistently dish out in their regular playground.