Glenn Gibbons: Milan exposed Celtic limitations

Mario Balotelli celebrates scoring AC Milan's third goal during his side's 3-0 win at Parkhead ' which sent the Scottish club out of Europe. Picture: Getty
Mario Balotelli celebrates scoring AC Milan's third goal during his side's 3-0 win at Parkhead ' which sent the Scottish club out of Europe. Picture: Getty
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Hawk-eyed high rollers will have had no difficulty in seeing that backing Milan to beat Celtic in the Champions League match at Parkhead represented an investment that would make the flotation of the Royal Mail look like the South Sea Bubble.

Their confidence would be stoked in the first instance by the providence-tempting media reports of the imminent collapse of the celebrated Italian club, their slide into the lower reaches of Serie A and their apparent shortage of talent and effectiveness seemingly making them about as threatening as sacrificial lambs.

Anyone with a punting cast to his or her mind, however, will be acutely conscious of the law of probabilities. One of its articles decrees that the phrase “there couldn’t be a better time to play them” almost invariably translates as “you should prepare for the worst”. Examples of this linguistic eccentricity (and its habitually calamitous consequences) are to be found in abundance throughout the history of a sometimes savage game.

Another very persuasive element would be the realisation that any team likely to be tellingly diminished by the absence of Scott Brown – a worry about Celtic that was widespread among fans and pundits – must be in serious bother.

But the confidence of those who gleefully seized on the 6-4 against Massimiliano Allegri’s team would have been even more significantly fuelled by the testimony of the most reliable witness of all, the Celtic manager himself, Neil Lennon. The Irishman’s clear warning of inadequacy was in print a full two days before the event.

Lennon previewed the fifth and decisive match in Group H with a lamentation of the location of his club and the moderate level of their domestic game. Living and playing in Scotland, he claimed, is no aid to recruiting players of towering talent, or to holding on to the occasional star who passes through.

He said: “The environment we are in holds us back a bit in terms of bringing players in and keeping players”. This would quickly be recognised by experienced, clinical members of the wagering class as shorthand for “the ones we have aren’t very good”.

The majority of Lennon’s side proceeded to provide humiliating vindication of their manager’s deep misgivings, in the process underlining the risks often attached to forming dogmatic opinions about the merit (or otherwise) of players over a period of less than about two years.

First-season wonders often prove to be less than the genuine article in their second, like an artist trying to master the difficulty of matching a sensational debut album with the follow-up. At Celtic, they are easily identified – Emilio Izaguirre, Charlie Mulgrew, Joe Ledley and Beram Kayal, while Georgios Samaras appears to be undergoing unstoppable deterioration.

Evidence of the substance of Lennon’s pre-match comments took physical form on the field. Celtic’s Dutchmen, Virgil van Dyk and Derk Boerrigter, were on a lower echelon than Milan’s Dutchman, Nigel de Jong. The two Parkhead players are uncapped and still have much to prove, while their countryman in the red and black stripes is a league championship winner in Holland and England (Ajax and Manchester City) with 69 international appearances, including the 2010 World Cup final.

With the 31-year-old Brazilian, Kaka, returning to Milan from Real Madrid to reduce the Scottish champions to debris, the entire exercise was a spectacular demonstration of the wisdom of the old maxim that form is temporary, class permanent.

But there is little point in Celtic supporters continuing to clamour for a large spend from a board of directors who seem to have created conflicting emotions among their followers. While the release of the club’s latest healthy annual returns is invariably accompanied by an outbreak of communal crowing, the same celebrants are quickly deflected from any sense of economic prudence by a setback such as the one sustained this week. Difficult though it may be to accept, Celtic are a middle-order club whose living and working environment, as Lennon observed, is as great an obstacle to recruiting high quality as the resources to finance it.

A waste of breath over a ‘waste of time’

Calvin Coolidge, the famously laconic 30th president of the United Sates, once found himself seated next to a society woman at a dinner party. “Mr President,” she said, “you must talk to me. I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you”. Coolidge replied, “You lose”.

In this regard, Cal had something in common with another president, the one currently occupying the highest office at the Scottish Football Association, Campbell Ogilvie. The rarity of Ogilvie’s decision actually to comment on one of football’s minor issues has already given rise to a barrage of public criticism and needs no further embellishment from this column.

But, in flexing previously unsuspected “muscle” by chiding Celtic’s chief executive, Peter Lawwell, and Rangers’ board of directors over the former’s “Rory Bremner pretends he’s Tony Blair” remark, the actual content of his sudden resort to vocal exercise warrants inspection.

Ogilvie claimed that the official complaint from Ibrox had wasted the Association’s time. It seems legitimate to ask: exactly how much time did he have in mind?

Judging by the haste with which the compliance officer, Vincent Lunny, dismissed the possibility of a “trial” on the grounds that Lawwell had no case to answer, it is likely that he could have arrived at this conclusion during his tea break.

The SFA in the past will certainly have wasted considerably longer passages of time over equally – or even more – trivial episodes. And, however long it may have taken Lunny to pass the file from his “in” to his “out” tray, it was hardly worth the bother of Ogilvie breaking the habit of a lifetime.