Celtic have endured a, to put it tactfully, tumultuous Champions League campaign this season. Suffering embarrassing defeats to PSG (5-0 and 7-1) and Bayern Munich (4-0), it would be difficult to call it a success, even considering that they’ve qualified for the Europa League Last 32.
That came thanks to a better head-to-head record against the bottom placed team in their group, Anderlecht, but only thanks to the difference of two goals. Celtic were, at various points, sluggish, ambitious, uncomfortable and downright petrified.
After the especially tough loss to PSG in Paris, many, perhaps for the first time, began to truly criticise Brendan Rodgers’ management. This was, they said, not acceptable for a club of Celtic’s stature – it was all well and good beating every team in Scotland on a weekly basis but the true measurement of his achievements would come at this higher level. This is both a fair and unfair statement.
It’s certainly true that the Champions League offers the platform for managers and their teams to express themselves and their ambitions that the backwaters of Scotland can’t provide. The nature of football, however, has changed.
Consider the growing idea of there being a ‘Big six’ in Europe – Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Manchester City, and Juventus – who dominate the transfer and trophy landscape.
The controversial move of Ousmane Dembélé to Barcelona from Borussia Dortmund this summer felt sadly encapsulating. For here was a 20-year-old playing for one of Germany’s largest teams, recent Champions League finalists, host to some of the greatest supporters in world football, petulantly refusing to even train in order to force a move through to the Camp Nou.
It felt like a quintessentially 21st century defining moment; the decision of a child of the FIFA video game age. There was the example, too, of Phillipe Coutinho reacting so strongly to Barcelona’s interest when he took to the field at one of English football’s most historic grounds, Anfield, every second week.
What hope for ‘the rest’ football, when Liverpool and Dortmund don’t hold enough sway for the modern footballer? Celtic don’t fare any better in the current climate: their fertile scouting network has begun to act as a feeder for mid-table English Premier League sides (Southampton poached three high-profile stars in Victor Wanyama, Fraser Forster and Virgil Van Dijk in the space of three seasons); Neymar, for depressing perspective, makes more in one week than Celtic’s entire squad do in a year.
Current money division
What this all equates to is an extremely uneven playing field. It increasingly feels like there won’t be a run to the Champions League final like Porto’s in 2003, a definitive underdog defying all odds. The Champions League is no place for the Leicester’s of this world.
The increasing frequency with which the same big teams draw one another in the knockout stages of the competition seems indicative too – who can really claim to be excited about Chelsea meeting Barcelona again? Teams of Celtics ilk can only, realistically, hope to make it into the Europa League as the third placed team in their group.
It’s necessary here to concede that these disparities exist at the national level too; Celtic acting as the PSG of Scotland here. Their budget far outweighs everyone else’s, even Rangers and Aberdeen. It’s the stick which these smaller teams in the country like to beat Celtic with, naturally. Once we accept the overall unevenness of football at both levels, however, a distinction can be made.
When playing in the league, the line between success and failure is far greater: it’s only right for a team like Ross County to set their side up with ten men behind the ball for most of the game, one point gained can eventually be the difference between safety and relegation.
Taken further, it could be the ultimate difference between surviving as a club and not having the necessary funds to remain intact. Football at this level is dirty and desperate. In cup competitions, however, one would find it difficult to notice such a team playing as negatively as they do in the league.
This is because, as should seem obvious, there is less to play for – if a small team draws Celtic in the quarter finals of the Scottish Cup, not much is expected, the pressure is off, and the players can therefore go and express themselves on the pitch with greater freedom. The Champions League is a cup competition.
Put simply, that Celtic should be expected, demanded, to play in the manner of a nervous, fraught struggling league side seems entirely reductive. This should be the platform for their players, with less riding on it, to show that they belong at this level, with the Neymars and Lewandowskis, and playing football expressively and without fear.
Celtic then and now
One only has to recall Jock Stein’s mythical 1967 Celtic side to see the possibilities. Facing the cold, claustrophobic catenaccio football of Helenio Herrera’s Inter Milan, Stein made sure his team played in the most appropriate, attacking manner possible. The result was a literal onslaught, how the score ended only 2-1 to Celtic was incomprehensible.
At times Celtic had only their two centre backs – Billy McNeill and John Clark – providing protection, such was the offensive push on show. It would have been all too easy to adopt a more cautious approach in such a prestigious fixture, but this would have been against Stein’s ethos.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Celtic’s 2-1 victory at Celtic Park over Barcelona in 2012 was celebrated wildly, and so it should have been. What it was, though, was not something to recall with pride retrospectively.
The statistics from the game are bewildering: 11% possession for Celtic, 200-odd passes to Barca’s 750; The winning goals came from a corner and an uncharacteristic mistake from Mascherano from a long kick-out from the goalkeeper Fraser Forster.
This wasn’t defensive football with a clear identity like a Mourinho or Herrera side; rather, it was a performance of despairing cowardice and resignation. It remains staggering, to this day, how Neil Lennon’s average side came away with that win.
Rodgers, then, clearly has two options – adhere to his beliefs and play attacking, passing football; or concede to the pessimists and set up in a twin system of defence and prayer. It really becomes a question of aesthetics against ascetic forms.
Rodgers has given terse, frustrated replies in post-match interviews following these defeats in Europe when pressed on his philosophy and one hopes he doesn’t succumb to a depressing defeatism. Surely most would rather a manager like him with principles than one who would always choose the safe choice.
In a time where the money gap is only increasing in the sport, we need managers like Guardiola, Rodgers, Klopp and Sarri to continue the fight for innovation and expression.