“I’m here again to win… and to look to see if we can do something in Europe.”
Those were the words of Brendan Rodgers in June as he was unveiled as the Celtic manager for the second time at a press conference.
However, following the club’s Scottish League Cup exit to Kilmarnock, and a transfer window that has seen first-team players such as Jota and Carl Starfelt head for the Parkhead exit, the question arises: just how ready are Celtic to make an impact in Europe?
Eyes will be fixed on the Champions League group stage draw in Monaco next week. But rather than feeling optimism about the club’s European campaign, Celtic fans could be forgiven for dreading the prospect of this injury-ravaged side lining up against the best the continent has to offer.
Despite the clamour for European progression being a priority for the club, and word that Rodgers was sitting on the biggest transfer budget the club has enjoyed in recent memory, it beggars belief that the squad is already weaker than last season when we picked up just 2 points from our Champions League exploits.
Even before Jota’s £25 million move to Saudi Arabian side Al-Ittihad, there was an expectation that the club would really push on this summer to cement its domestic dominance and make inroads in European competitions. There was even talk of breaking our transfer record; with the window closing next week, that now seems impossible.
So, where are the signings?
With the exception of Maik Nawroski and Gustaf Lagerbielke, the majority of the club’s signings have been made on potential alone, with no real expectation that they would be first-team starters. Even in Lagerbielke’s case, he will be demoted to the Parkhead bench as soon as Cameron Carter-Vickers returns from injury. Every signing has been under 23 and clearly acquired with a view to the future.
It is evident that the club requires a new number one goalkeeper. Joe Hart has been a great servant to the club for the past two seasons and is a key figure to remain within the dressing room, but the 36-year-old is coming towards the end of his career, and it’s time he was moved to back-up to deputise for a younger and higher-quality goalkeeper. Earlier in the window, Celtic were linked with Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, yet nothing has transpired with the Dinamo Zagreb goalkeeper now set to join Fenerbahce. Some journalists have speculated that the Board is refusing to sign a goalkeeper until one of Hart, Benjamin Siegrist, and Scott Bain exits the club, but given we have already moved on Vasillis Barkas and Conor Hazard, the refusal to sign a new goalkeeper is inexcusable.
Just as bewildering has been the refusal to even try to replace a player of Jota’s quality. Of course, it’s extremely unlikely we’ll find a player as good as the Portuguese winger; after all, that’s why he commanded a £25 million fee. But with just days left of the window, the lack of creativity in our wide positions is an alarming concern. Daizen Maeda has excellent pace and determination to be dangerous on the counter-attack or act as an outlet when we need someone to get us up the park, but he is unable to take on a man and fashion chances from nothing the way Jota did. As for Liel Abada, he is great at getting into goal-scoring positions from out wide, but again, in terms of providing that creative spark, he is not on Jota’s level.
Another area of concern is right-back. While Alistair Johnson has been sensational since his move to Celtic from the MLS in January, when he is injured, the drop-off in quality is evident; it’s something we may be able to get away with in the Scottish Premiership, but strength in depth is crucial to having any hopes whatsoever of remaining in European competition past Christmas.
Even if Celtic had cruised past Kilmarnock in the League Cup, the stark facts about an underwhelming transfer window would have eventually been laid bare sooner or later.
It’s clear that the transition to Brendan Rodgers’ way of playing is going to take a little bit of time, given how ingrained Ange Postecoglou’s style of play was among the squad. But it’s only right that when the club is sitting in perhaps its best financial position ever, the manager is backed in the transfer market to make that transition easier, with the club remaining successful domestically and on the European stage.
Since January, we have lost Giakoumakis, Juranovic, Jota, and Starfelt. That’s four players of real quality, and it is patently obvious that the Board has been asleep at the wheel. Unless they wake up and make three or four quality signings before next week’s deadline, then Rodgers’ ambitions of European progression will remain a pipe dream.