On Tuesday night, in typical ‘Celtic make everything as difficult as humanly possible’ fashion, Brendan Rodgers led the club back to European football’s top table – the Champions League. It is a return that every hoops-clad fan has desired for three long years.
During the second-leg the pundits and analysts on the much maligned BT Sports made a huge deal about the riches (thought to be north of £25million) soon to be laid at the Celtic hierarchy’s fingertips, but it is not the treasure that most excites the Celtic fans, it is the prestige. It is the welcome need to see the club pitted against the sport’s elite and in doing so dish out a few bloody noses. Barcelona, AC Milan, Juventus, Manchester United are just some of the big names to be turned from Celtic Park with nothing to show for their efforts but a “what the hell just happened there?” look plastered across their faces. The domination of the Scottish top flight has been fine, but it is European football that has, and perhaps always will, be the true barometer of success for any Celtic side. With that in mind what can we expect from Celtic’s next continental jaunt?
To be honest with you I am not the planet’s most optimistic football fan, but I will be going into this campaign with a rare zest. Brendan Rodgers has proved to be an astute acquisition and has improved almost every player at the club. Once you factor in the afore mentioned millions it is not absurd to assume that the club can achieve something special.
The club’s greatest strength is no closely guarded secret; it is the atmosphere generated inside Celtic Park. The claustrophobic cauldron has, since the turn of the century, aided players to play well above themselves and help the club to a staggering group phase record. From a total of 24 group games played the Hoops have managed a record of: played 24, won 16, drawn, 5 and lost just 3. A win percentage of 66.67%, a truly remarkable feat when you consider the disparity in earnings between Celtic and the clubs they often face.
This phenomenon can best be explained by Spain and Barcelona legend Xavi Hernandez, who said “The atmosphere generated by the fans in Celtic’s stadium for our visit was the most impressive I’ve ever witnessed. The grounds of Liverpool and Manchester United are good and the hostile feeling of playing against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu is also excellent, but the atmosphere against Celtic was the best.”
While points can be accrued with a fearsome regularity at home it has been a vastly different story anytime the Bhoys look out their passports and jet off. From the total of 24 away group games played Celtic have a record of; played 24, won 1, drawn 1 and lost a frankly sickening 22. The sole victory coming against Spartak Moscow during the zenith of Neil Lennon’s tenure. This homesickness has blighted every modern day campaign that Celtic have endured, the exception coming during the now historic Road to Seville, where it was a seemingly never ending series of away performances that proved to be the catalyst for an unbelievable European Cup final.
If Celtic are to achieve the unlikely and make the voyage into the last 16 then some of that spirit will have to be conjured. While it is natural to be optimistic and allow your mind to drift into a positive realm, you have to be realistic. The only way Celtic can avoid being drawn from pot 4 and placed in the more advantageous pot 3 is, in the extremely unlikely turn of events where three out of four of the following teams fail to qualify from the final qualification rounds; Manchester City, Borussia Monchengladbach, Ajax and Red Bull Salzburg.
It is hard to predict how Celtic will get on until the draw is made, but what is guaranteed is that, after such a prolonged absence, the group will be a tough one. The easiest draw would most likely be a combination of Leicester City, Bayer Leverkusen and Club Brugge.
As I have said I am not the most optimistic fan in the world but what target I think is imminently attainable is a tally of 7 points. Such a tally has allowed sides to qualify for the knockout stages before, most notably Roma who, a couple of years ago, qualified with the paltry sum of just 6 points. What is more likely is that it would allow a graceful, dignified decent into the Europa League where an extended run is much more achievable. Not a popular prediction, nor outlandish but one to be proud of, should it happen.