There can be a tendency to view the toils of Brendan Rodgers’ side to compete in the Champions League as a present-day difficulty. In reality, though, it has ever been thus for Celtic in this most testing of European tournaments.
They may have reached the last 16 three times since their first attempt to make the group stages ended in failure in 1998. The fact is, though, that more often Celtic have been unable even to negotiate the qualifiers – that fate befalling them five times in the past 19 years.
The three points claimed over the first half of their current Group B campaign may seem a meagre haul. However, in nine previous seasons competing in the Champions League, only three times have they amassed more points by the midpoint of the sectional stage.
It is not so much their losses these past two months but the manner of them that has caused consternation. And caused also that rarest of things: a discussion over the effectiveness of Rodgers’ tactics as Celtic manager.
As his team prepare to host Bayern Munich on Tuesday night in the second leg of the sides’ double-header, the Irishman remains clearly nipped at the ruminations that followed his team being eviscerated by Bavarian behemoths at the Allianz Arena 11 days ago and, frankly, getting away with a 3-0 defeat. These amounted to postulating that, following on from the 5-0 pasting by PSG, Rodgers might adopt a less expansive approach in Europe to prevent his team being such easy meat for the big beasts of continental football. Clubs all too financially ravenous to offer Celtic much of an earthly if going at them.
However, Rodgers, who this week launched an autobiography whose proceeds will benefit a number of charities, has been emboldened to keep calm and carry on by the front-foot fluency with which his team flowed to floor Aberdeen in midweek. “Willie Miller made the comment about that level of performance from a Scottish team that you don’t see,” said the Celtic manager. “That comes from playing against Bayern Munich when we lost 3-0 away. You hear all the daftness about pragmatism after games. If we’re pragmatic we don’t play like that at Aberdeen.
“We are in a way of working and committed to it, an idea of how to play. Over time that will give us the best chance of succeeding collectively. But if you’re just going to put player-for-player against the super powers it’s near on impossible. We aim to be as competitive as we can as a collective.
“It’s all relative. It gets to me at some point, that’s why I thought the criticism of the players after Munich was excessive; it was incredible, really. I’d love to sit down and find out what people expect. If we’re to beat Bayern and PSG, is that what people expect? And to finish first or second in the group? Is that what people expect?
“They are top, top quality players and if they bring their A game and we bring ours they win. If they bring their A game and we bring anything less then we lose. It’s pretty straight-forward. That’s why the game is the way it is. That’s why the big clubs at that level have the money and investment. There’s a reason the players are playing at that level.
“Look at Man City, a team who were mid to bottom of the Premier League, then the owners come in and they sign Robinho for a colossal amount of money and their spending starts there. The level of expectancy takes them from there to there. What have they spent? Over a billion? If you look at PSG and what they’ve spent, it’s hard to begin to imagine. The best players will always cost the most money. I’m a realist and that’s why I never get too carried away with the fantasy of it all. We’re trying to grow something here, realistically, and trying to develop a way of working at the club that’s about a footballing idea that will hopefully grow and cultivate many players that can go on and achieve a lot of great things for the club, both domestically and in Europe. That’s where we’re at. The likes of Bayern have a £10 million budget for their stadium repairs – and if they don’t spend it it gets topped up the next year!”
Celtic might be a slightly different proposition for Jupp Heynckes’ side in midweek not through seeking to serve pragmatism but by altering personnel. It may not have been any mere coincidence that for the Pittodrie pounding which represented the Scottish champions’ first genuinely towering display of this season, the Celtic side featured five changes from the team that took to the field in the Allianz. With the driving presences of fresh, fit and hungry trio Moussa Dembele – whose double took his goal tally to four inside a matter of days – Tom Rogic and James Forrest there was a lacerating element to Rodgers’ team that, in comparison with the treble term, they have only intermittently conjured up this season. As the result of his hamstring lay-off, Dembele has yet to start this season in the very Champions League where he really made his name last year.
“He’s certainly fit now,” said Rodgers. “You saw his performance the other night. He scored his two goals in the six-yard box, which is important. He’s right in there and his overall play was exceptional. I am just glad I have him and Leigh fit and young Odsonne [Edouard] there behind them, fit strikers that can push each other.” Even applying a gentle shove in the direction of Bayern come two days’ time would be a welcome development.