Celtic’s porous defending offers up an easy narrative about the club’s Champions League hopes evaporating in Athens last night. On BT Sport, pundit Chris Sutton wasn’t going to pass up the open goals the situation threw up – even allowing for a spirited late rally that almost allowed them to recover a two-goal deficit after a headed strike by substitute Scott Sinclair made it 2-1 in the 77th minute.
The chickens had come home to roost, Sutton said, following the failure of the club to recruit high calibre, experienced centre-backs over the past 14 months.
The absence of one man that could be considered to fit that profile – the stay-at-home and want-away Dedryck Boyata, pictured, – had Sutton giving the Belgian it large. He was “a disgrace” for “downing tools”, “not fit to wear the hoops”, and it was time to to “get him out”.
Scratch beneath the easy conclusions and the fact is Celtic found themselves in a curious situation in Athens, and succumbed in curious fashion through actually producing a more than decent away display – aside, of course, from the goals conceded early in either half that resulted from collective team failures, not only the shortcomings of centre-back pairing Jozo Simunovic and Jack Hendry.
The elimination that befell Celtic in Athens will be presented as providing incontrovertible evidence that Rodgers’ team are going backwards, following two successful Champions League qualifying campaigns.
Instead it represents a significant backward step –which isn’t the same thing. No Scottish club have made it through three straight qualifying campaigns in European football’s blue riband tournament. Rodgers’ men had negotiated two, in no small part, because they have avoided a team of AEK Athens’ standing. They hail from a Greek nation currently 14th in the Uefa rankings. In previously overcoming Rosenborg twice, Astana twice and Hapoel Beer-sheva in latter qualifying rounds, they have not been pitted against a team from any nation with such an exalted standing.
Equally, last season AEK reached the last 32 of the Europa League through avoiding defeat in the eight games – six in the group stages – they played in the competition. Again, no previous qualifying opponent could boast such pedigree. And yet, Celtic came perilously close to being undone in Israel against Beer-sheva, and made heavy weather of the Kazakhstanis. At any stage in the past three seasons then, they might well have lost to AEK.
That is no comfort but they will have to consider the consolation of dropping down to the Europa League play-off round as that. It is likely they will be faced with FK Suduva for a chance to guarantee European football until Christmas.
And the fact is that, with only one win from the 12 Champions League group games they have played under Rodgers, the Europa League is more befitting of where the club find themselves. The club can talk big, talk of the a 60,000-capacity Celtic Park creating one of the great spectacles in continental competition, but they are a middling European club.
The tensions between Rodgers and his board over the absence of new arrivals will simmer unless Celtic cut some deals in the remaining two weeks to give the Irishman a degree of comfort that his squad isn’t about to experience a lethal stasis.
Yet, without Champions League football, there will be even greater reluctance on the part of the Celtic board to invest in the team. A near 40 per cent increase in cost in the Rodgers’ era can only be covered by selling assets or banking the £35 million that participation in the group stages brings in. There might well be transfer activity in the weeks ahead at Celtic... it just might not be in the direction the manager wants it.
The defeat by AEK made it the first time in his 26-month tenure that Rodgers has experienced back-to-back defeats. There might have been mitigating circumstances for the Hearts loss at Tynecastle on Saturday but there can be no excuses offered up for any further reversals. These are the first testing times that Rodgers has known in Scotland. He certainly requires to defend himself better against these than his side were able to do in Athens.