Planting a flag emblazoned with the word “progress” on the European football landscape is what Brendan Rodgers firmly believes his Celtic team can do on Tuesday.
The Champions League campaign that will then end has so often left the Scottish champions feeling like a punchbag. Little wonder, then, that the opportunity to finish above Anderlecht and so claim the Group B Europa League slot would feel like a triumph of rolling with the blows.
Celtic only need avoid a 3-0 defeat or worse in Glasgow on Tuesday to guarantee European football beyond Christmas. Not necessarily as straightforward as it sounds. For despite a midweek home loss against Standard Liege, the Brussels side are in better shape than when Celtic inflicted a 3-0 defeat on them in Belgium ten weeks ago.
Yet, with that first away Champions League success in five years – and their most emphatic in the competition – Rodgers’ men demonstrated that when pitted against a team of similar standing, they can hold their own.
In two Champions League campaigns, Anderlecht are the only side Celtic have faced not to hail from one of the big five leagues. And short of losing fewer than 12 goals in two meetings with Paris Saint-Germain, and being so malleable for Bayern Munich in Germany, frankly there was little more could be expected of Celtic in Group B than challenge an opponent from a much higher-ranked country, and with a more generous budget, for third place. European football at the highest level for Celtic seems now as if it is always going to be about taking beatings while hoping to land the odd major blow. Prevailing against Anderlecht would be an “absolutely brilliant achievement for us” maintained Rodgers, another milestone after snaring four straight domestic trophies and a shedload of records.
“When we first came in, the club and the country hadn’t been in the Champions League for three seasons,” he said. “We wanted to make a mark and qualify and we have done that. Each season we have made progress and as much as we know it is a steep learning curve for us, we still want to make progress. We were fourth seeds, let’s not forget. You can take away the top two teams because they are two of the very best. The team in Pot 3 has significantly more income than us. So to come away with European football, that would surely signify progress. Certainly for us it would because it is where we can improve and develop our game – on that stage.
“I think if you measure [us] relatively to some of the other teams [outside of the big five leagues], that is where we are at. We have done really well against Rosenborg, Astana and these other teams. They are champions of those nations. Belgium is still really strong, you only need to look at their players, but it is probably a fairer marker of where we are at. The game there, we came out of it really well and we hope to do so again.”
The consternation caused in Belgium by Celtic’s dismantling of Anderlecht in late September was evidenced again this week in a bizarre rant from club legend Paul van Himst, who boasts a near three-decade association with the Brussels side as well as a spell in charge of his national team. “We should never have allowed ourselves to lose to a team of peasants like Celtic. They were a bunch of woodcutters,” he despaired of the loss that came under caretaker Nicolas Frutos, with Hein Vanhaezebrouck having since become permanent replacement for Rene Weiler.
“OK,” offered a bemused Rodgers over comments he said he hadn’t seen. “These things are always said and I suppose with their budget and where they were at as a club, the history they have, they will be expected to beat us. Especially at home, and maybe looking at our budget and where we are at. So it probably shocked them that we had won and played well.”
That performance and result has led to a belief from those of a Celtic disposition that the club could make a real impression in the Europa League; that perhaps the current crop could emulate the class of 2003 – or Rangers in 2008 – and go all the way to the final of the continent’s second-string cross border competition. Rodgers baulked at that notion this week.
“It would be hugely difficult,” he said. “If you think of a decade, look how the gap has increased. If you think when Celtic were in Seville they had players who came right out of some the top six teams in the Premier league at the time. They had crack players, guys like Paul Lambert who had won the Champions League with Dortmund. You had a level of player who in that time could really compete at that level. I am not saying that we couldn’t , we would be competitive, but I think we also have to be realistic.
“Over the course of the decade since Rangers reached the final, a lot has passed in football and finances have made the gap even bigger. And it increases each year.”
In Manchester United, it was the fourth richest club in the world that claimed the trophy last season. Before that, Seville – three years running – Chelsea and Atletico Madrid gave the leading nations a monopoly on this trophy too.
“It just show you,” Rodgers said. “Even [last year’s finalists] Ajax. I think they are still spending £13 to £15 million on players. So for us the step is to be there. We never like to dampen anyone’s hopes but you have got to be realistic.”