Celtic: Spoiling A Party In The Champions League
“You’ll never walk alone,” verse AND chorus, resonated around Celtic Park as much as it ever could have at Anfield, the spine-tingling barely dying down even when the crowd sang the chorus too fast, as crowds always do.
The PA system had been operating on the theory “if it’s too loud, you’re too old.” Yet STILL the Champions League music cowered beneath the din which greeted it, accompanied it and re-intensified when it ended…or when the TV camera operator reached the end of the team line-ups…the best/only way for many to gauge the ending. (Charles Green said he’d own Rangers until he heard this music at Ibrox. If he’d said that as Celtic’s owner, he’d still BE Celtic’s owner).
And the crowd noise pattern repeated itself, in shorter, even more intense bursts, when Celtic’s players formed their pre-match huddle (one of the earlier teams to follow this now-common procedure) and broke from it to assume their positions.
Last Wednesday, as on many big Celtic Park European nights, this was designed to inspire Celtic and un-nerve the visitors, in this case, Anderlecht. Right results. Wrong teams.
One Celtic fan tweeted that the immediate pre-match experience was worth the admission money. And, having experienced it “live” for the first time, I agreed. Just as well, really. Celtic lost possession as we settled into our seats and didn’t get it back in any meaningful way for ages. And, despite a second-half improvement, they were, wrote the Times newspaper’s Michael Grant, “as poor as they have been in any of the recent batterings against the elite.”
The Scottish and Belgian champions were battling for Champions’ League Group B’s third place, and qualification for the Europa League knock-out stages, with genuine title-contenders Paris St Germain and Bayern Munich having long assumed their positions over the hills and far away.
For teams not financially bloated by Premier League broadcast money, reaching the Europa League’s last 32 has financial benefit. AND a handy €1.5m for any winner on the night. Some prestige also remains attached to being “in Europe after Christmas,” a legacy of days when “after Christmas” meant you were European quarter-finalists (the Champions’, Uefa and Cup-Winners’ cups barely had a “first 32”), which was something worth carving onto the barer honours boards.
But only Celtic seemed to be affected by any “enormity” attached to the occasion. (Grant added that “once again, Celtic Park’s outdated reputation as a fortress” was “held up to some ridicule,” without explaining how an “outdated” reputation could be “held up” to anything). And the words “without fear” under manager Brendan Rodgers’ matchday programme column became more darkly comic with every nerve-riddled, unforced Celtic error.
To ensure third place, Celtic only had to do better than lose by three goals. And Rodgers’ tactics might have been over-governed by that. “Fallen between two stools,” said one Celtic fan. “Aye, they’ve been sh*te alright,” I responded…in my head…hours later (I’m a better writer than talker). The problem was that Celtic rarely had possession long enough to employ tactics, let alone facilitate analysis of them.
Celtic beat a clueless, managerless Anderlecht 3-0 in Brussels on 27th September. On Wednesday, the hosts were again the clueless ones. Grant’s image of Celtic’s “support rolling up in expectation of an easy win” was, I know ‘cos I was there, the sort of nonsense for which Scotland’s football media are rightly “held up to ridicule.” Still, Celtic were “sh*te alright.”
Anderlecht pressed Celtic “high up the pitch.” And even when Celtic beat this press (which they did a few times), their passing was woeful. And even when the passing wasn’t woeful, the first touch was. Only keeper Craig Gordon, relentlessly over-worked left-back Kieran Tierney and captain Scott Brown reached half-time with a semblance of footballing credibility at this level. Centre-back Dedryck Boyata was “without fear’s” most distant cousin. Wideman Scott Sinclair was a shadow of a shadow of his former Celtic self. And a general malaise gripped almost everyone else.
Celtic simply operated at a different (lack of) pace. Every Anderlecht player could, and most did, go past their immediate opponent at will and ease. They always had a player spare, able to pick a pass, with Celtic’s closing-down barely a gesture. However, midfielder Stuart Armstrong was a special kind of bad. He wasn’t alone in displaying control best described as air-traffic and the inability to pass a parcel. But some of his errors were beyond anything I have ever seen in fully-professional football.
There was one outstanding example. Boyata’s display had already brought Oliver Tebily to mind (one for the Celtic recent historians there). But for Armstrong to literally RUN AWAY as Boyata tried to play the ball to his feet was something else entirely. The loose pass fell for one of many Anderlecht players in space (as per). That he didn’t accept the gift could only have been attributable to shock…or laughter.
Armstrong has his detractors among Celtic’s support. Some find him arrogant. Others resented his apparent eagerness to engineer a move elsewhere this summer. Yet, as his inevitable substitution dominated half-time discussions, a nagging worry persisted that his performance really was something else entirely. I just pray to any gods with relevant influence that it was only bad form, and nothing grimmer.
Those gods alone know how Celtic got to half-time level. Had Gordon not magnificently saved Sven Kums’ third-minute shot, Celtic would more likely have been buried than inspired. Players such as Dennis Appiah and Henry Onyekuru, briefly a Celtic target, could have developed agoraphobia with much space. While Sofiane Hanni added some Scott Brown out-muscling to his imperiousness.
Half-time substitute Oliver Nctham springboarded Celtic’s second-half improvement, by more than just not being Stuart Armstrong. He found the space Anderlecht had monopolised and gave Celtic the chance to be an attacking threat, intermittently anyway. And the third quarter was lively, competitive and highly watchable. Until the 62nd minute.
Without football-related superpowers, Nctham couldn’t eradicate Celtic’s sloppy, crazily off-beam passing in their own third. And when Appiah benefitted from more faffing about and whipped in a near-post cross, Celtic centre-back Jozo Simunovic, a modicum of decorum compared to Boyata, headed it in off the post past Gordon’s (journalistic cliché alert) despairing dive.
It says much (about Anderlecht’s finishing AND Celtic’s shortcomings) that this made Simunovic Celtic’s biggest threat at both ends, as he was narrowly off-target with two efforts from set-plays either side of the goal. Odsonne Edouard was a combative replacement for an almost ruminant Moussa Dembele. But we’ll never know how good Anderlecht keeper Frank Boecks was, although his slow-motion save from James Forrest’s curling effort suggested “not very.”
Surprisingly, the goal dampened the game as a contest, not only because of Celtic’s largely limp response but also because Anderlecht’s belief that they could score twice more and stay in Europe began to evaporate so quickly. They seemed to give up entirely some minutes from the end. And news of a mere two minutes’ stoppage-time brought competitive proceedings to a surreal halt.
In theory, both sides had something to celebrate. But there was almost no appetite for that on either side. Even the previously excellent Anderlecht support were muted. And Celtic’s half-hearted, belated move to thank their fast-departing supporters was an embarrassment for all participants.
Talk of significant Europa League progress has always seemed a little fanciful. And insistences that Celtic were genuine trophy contenders were borderline nuts, easily countered(CHK) by one word, “Arsenal.” Former striker Pierre Van Hooijdonk was perhaps morally obliged to be optimistic (although Nottingham Forest fans may have a view on that). But Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben was stretching credulity to hamstring-pulling limits by backing Celtic to go “all the way” to next May’s final in Lyon.
And after Wednesday, it is difficult to conceive of any team an unseeded Celtic could beat over two legs. Let alone become the “Lyon Lions,” as one Celtic fan suggested on the walk home, though not without laughing.
Rodgers must surely reinforce Celtic’s rearguard in January’s transfer window but will be fortunate to land a player of requisite quality with requisite eligibility. And while bad days “at the office” do occur (I’m self-employed and I have them…as some of you may be thinking right now), any sense that Celtic are an improved European outfit from last season evaporated on Wednesday.
In fairness, Rodgers eschewed his tendency to commend his players regardless of performance, although he could do little else after…THAT (although he still lauded fourth-seeded Celtic’s “jump” to third place, despite the one circumstance-driven victory which got them there). And for someone with as generous a public persona as Rodgers to suggest that some players might mistakenly “think they are Champions League players” says everything about how bad Celtic were.
Domestically, Celtic haven’t been up-to-scratch lately. And it remains unclear whether this is more than a temporary form fall-off (as happened late last year). More Scottish sides have, at last, discovered the benefit of pressing Celtic “high up the pitch.” Hibernian were the best exponents of this at Celtic Park, three days after Celtic’s Brussels triumph. And they were ten minutes from ending Celtic’s celebrated unbeaten domestic run at 57.
Celtic visit Hibernian on Sunday. The Hibees are managed by the last boss to guide Celtic to the Champions’ League’s last 16, Neil Lennon. And 67 will be the Celtic-appropriate final figure for that unbeaten domestic run if they play as they did on Wednesday.
However, they currently lead Scotland’s Premiership by seven points with a game in hand on, and games played at, their two nearest challengers. And they still produced top-form when it mattered most domestically, such as their 3-0 win at Pittodrie on 25th October against an Aberdeen side who were then only behind Celtic on goal difference.
Celtic’s situation, off-the-radar domestically but off-the-pace internationally, is a modern football phenomenon. Domestically dominant via the excessive financial advantage conferred on Champions League qualifiers from leagues with financially-puny broadcast deals, especially those with a multi-national reach. Internationally dominated by Champions League qualifiers from nations with financially- ripped broadcast deals and a multi-national reach.
Neither gap looks like closing significantly in the short-term. Not domestically, unless or until Aberdeen become a bigger operation on-and-off-the-pitch and while Rangers insanely insist that they are the club they once were, in any sense beyond the supremacist fcukwittery of “we are the people.” Not internationally, until Celtic get that defence sorted…and very possibly not even then, given the more difficult “champions route” to qualification under the Champions League’s structure for the “2018-2021 cycle.”
However, if their outclassing by a slick-but-limited Anderlecht has re-focussed the relevant minds within the club on those issues, it may prove a long-term victory (at £200 for travel, hotel and tickets, I have to believe that). That €1.5m would have been handy, though.