There have been comments from some supporters on Celtic websites to the effect that Wednesday’s elimination from the Champions League by AEK Athens, far from being a Greek tragedy, was a blessing in disguise.
It was an argument based on Uefa’s deliberate decision to skew club football’s most prestigious and lucrative tournament in favour of the entrants from the big four television nations; England, Spain, Germany, and Italy.
While the top four teams from their elite divisions are catapulted into the group phase – and France and Russia have three each – Celtic would have had to play eight qualifying matches in order to get there. The former European champions Ajax, Feynoord and Steaua Bucharest also find themselves disadvantaged by the economic might of the superpowers and, consequently, some Celtic fans believe that the Europa League now represents a more level playing field for them.
Chris Davies is having none of that, though; Brendan Rodgers’ assistant argues that the club does not and cannot accept that the secondary competition is where Celtic belong.
“That won’t be the case, even if personally I find it at times hard to accept that the champions of Scotland have to play four qualifiers to go through to the Champions League,” he said. “That’s the landscape of European football as it stands.
“We will always keep striving to do our very best and, as we did in the previous two years, to arrive in that competition. This year it’s the Europa League and we have to give it our best shot. Hopefully, we can make an impact.
“But we all share the same idea that we want to bring Champions League football here. The landscape has changed in terms of qualifying, which we have to accept but, if we can’t get in there, it’s important we qualify for the Europa League, make an impression and bring those special nights to Celtic Park.”
Towards that end, Rodgers’ side – with or without want-away Belgian defender Dedryck Boyata – must now secure their place in the secondary competition.
A play-off against FK Suduva awaits, with the first leg in Lithuania on Thursday evening. The only previous meetings between the clubs came in the first round of the Uefa Cup in 2002, when Martin O’Neill’s team posted a 10-1 aggregate victory on their way to the final. Davies warns against complacency, however, pointing out that Suduva are no longer the pushovers they were. Last season they eliminated Switzerland’s Sion on a 4-1 aggregate and Davies insists Celtic will accord them every respect.
“I watched them on Thursday night once it was confirmed we would playing them, just to get a gauge of the level they are at,” he said. “Suduva have had some big results in the last couple of years. They are a team with a big striker who can be a danger and they have a bit of physicality.
“Of course, if we play to our level then we’re confident of beating them over two legs and going through but we can’t be over-confident.”
Davies also stressed that no-one at the club would take the Europa League lightly. “This isn’t a consolation,” he said. “We all acknowledge, having been in the Champions League two years in a row, that it’s disappointing not be in there again. hat’s especially the case – and I think this has been lost – because of how well we played away from home this week and how much over two legs we actually controlled the games against AEK and how many chances we created.
“We deserved to go through but we didn’t and we need to accept that. We’re now in a competition which has some prestigious clubs.
“There are two big English names, Arsenal and Chelsea, and just the other night the winners of the Europa League, Atletico Madrid beat Real Madrid, the Champions League winners, in the Super Cup, the first time that had happened in six years. So there are some seriously good teams in this competition and we will still have big challenges.”
Davies would love to draw one of the Premier League plutocrats in the group phase if, as anticipated, Celtic prevail against Suduva.
“Of course I would,” he said. “Look, what’s disappointing is that we won’t have a Champions League atmosphere at Celtic Park; so many people have spoken about that over the years. In saying that, a night against a big English team would also generate a fantastic atmosphere. We played Manchester City a couple of years ago and didn’t lose – I’d include that as one of the famous nights at home since we’ve been up here. That’s the sort of challenge we would embrace.”
The failure to claim that £40m Champions League jackpot has been the first target Rodgers and Davies have failed to meet since arriving at Glasgow in the summer of 2016 but the Englishman has no fears that Celtic are in decline.
“This is something we’ve experienced before,” he said. “It happens in football. Brendan is an experienced manager, he’s been doing this for 10 years and has been through ups and downs. The important thing is to stay rational and keep a level head because you get setbacks in football.
“Up here so far we have won every trophy we’ve gone for, we’re double treble winners, reached the Champions League twice and then progressed out of the group last year so we’ve hit all our objective.
“Sometimes you can come out of a setback even stronger. You need to learn and move on quickly and that’s what we’ll do. There’s been a negativity which people have tried to put around us at the moment but I can tell you there’s a lot positivity within. We won’t let this hold us back. We have a lot to look forward to this season.
“We are defending all our trophies, progressing in Europe and Celtic, as a club, is moving forward. Not just this season, either, but for the seasons to look forward to. We will be stronger for this, not weaker.”