When the final whistle sounded at Celtic Park on Tuesday night, the result was met with predictable jeering – and criticism. The board was targeted for not spending enough on players and for appointing the cheap option as manager; the manager was criticised for his tactics and team selection.
After the 4-3 defeat by Cluj that ended the club’s Champions League campaign for another season, Ryan Christie – one of the few players who can be happy with his contribution – referred to Celtic as a “Champions League team”. Yet they have reached the Champions League group stages just twice in their last six attempts, managing a solitary victory over the two campaigns.
The club have largely failed to deliver in the Europa League as well. Meek knock-out stage exits to Valencia and Zenit St Petersburg aren’t much to show for second-place group finishes. Seville seems a very long time ago now.
There’s a scene in Father Ted where the simple-minded Father Dougal is shown a diagram of a head, with the word “dreams” on the inside and the word “reality” outside to help him tell the difference. It would appear to be a similar scenario at Celtic. The dream is reaching the Champions League group stages; the reality is that, as things stand, they aren’t quite good enough to manage it.
Uefa’s focus on the “big five” – England, France, Germany Italy and Spain – carries its own problems, but it’s not the reason behind Celtic’s failure. The travails of the Scottish national team suggest a more deep-rooted problem than the financial discrepancy .
Figures released this week showed Celtic’s wage bill was more than the combined total of the 14 top-flight teams in Romania. Cluj have spent just over £550,000 in transfers in the last two seasons. Celtic had £10 million worth of defenders as unused subs on Tuesday, bought within a week of each other. One of Celtic’s most successful signings in recent seasons was Moussa Dembele, who cost the club £500,000 in compensation. Even Henrik Larsson would only set the club back £1.2 million in today’s money. But the impression is that Celtic need to spend big on first-team players, regardless, because that’s what big clubs do. The £9 million spent on Odsonne Edouard looks justified, but the jury is still out on whether Christophe Jullien and Boli Bolingoli are deserving of their combined transfer fee.
Dan Petrescu’s side also participate in a far more competitive league. While there isn’t much daylight between Romania and Scotland’s coefficient, four different clubs have won the Romanian title in the last five years. Given the gulf in resources and experience – there were 218 international caps in the Celtic squad, while Cluj had 103 – Celtic’s exit was unexpected. But to brand the Romanians “minnows” does them a disservice, even if a sizeable part of their win was down to Neil Lennon’s side hitting the self-destruct button.
The teams on a par with Celtic in terms of Uefa co-efficient are not faring much better. Inter Milan are one spot above in 46th place thanks to Italy’s country coefficient. They won the Champions League ten years ago. Since then, their best return has been reaching the quarter-finals of the elite competition the season after. They haven’t even qualified for Europe every season since.
FC Copenhagen (48th) sit one place below, their best performance in the last decade coming in 2010-11 when they reached the Champions League round of 16. They were knocked out of this year’s competition on penalties by Red Star Belgrade – ranked 88th – on the same night Cluj defeated Celtic. Marseille (49th) lost the Europa League final in 2018 and before that exited at the quarter-final stage in 2011-12. They failed to qualify for Europe this season. Braga (50th) reached the Uefa Cup final in 2010-11. Since then, their European record has mostly consisted of elimination in the round of 32 or earlier.
In the same time frame, Celtic have reached the Champions League round of 16 once, losing to Juventus in 2012-13. The common factor with all these teams is that most of their European success came ten or more years ago. Celtic are not the odd team out, and it could be argued the club isn’t underachieving based on domestic league or finances.
In the early days of Europe, anyone could get a result on their day. The modern version is a huge programme requiring in-depth planning months beforehand, although the qualifying rounds do retain an element of the unexpected. Better off clubs have larger squads to allow them to compete in Europe and domestically. Had Brendan Rodgers been more proactive in the January transfer window instead of bringing in players on loan, Celtic might have been better placed to progress further in Europe this season.
What it boils down to is that Celtic need a squad capable of success on the home front and able to compete in Europe and, without the financial clout of many clubs competing in the Champions League or Europa League, they can’t attain that. But even then, Celtic have had greater resources than many of the clubs to have eliminated them in recent years. Until there’s fundamental change at Celtic Park with how the club approaches Europe, the cycle looks set to continue.