Scottish Football’s European Hopes Live or Die Tonight

After a brief stint in top spot last Saturday, following their 3-2 win over Livingston, Celtic moved back down to second place in the SPFL less than 24 hours later. They were replaced by their rivals across the city who could only manage a 2-2 draw against Hibs on Sunday.

Both results means it remains tight at the top of the league with three points separating first and third place. Now though, Celtic are only a point behind top spot and with a game at hand, putting the scaremongering of the media a few weeks back that the 9IAR Champions could have been 11 points behind at one point firmly to bed.

Be it comprehensive, tight or ugly, Celtic have remained on course. Winning is of course the most important outcome and with football operating in a strange climate right now, it is should be applauded far more.

The football hasn’t always been great, but I think that is something we are going to have to live with for this season at the very least. With no atmosphere in the stadiums, the teams will have to find their own support from one another and within themselves.

Celtic haven’t even gotten into their stride yet and despite being behind in terms of points and games, they’ve pushed on. They’ve also taken a bit of flak from some areas of the support.

Criticism is warranted where applicable, but our season doesn’t even feel like it’s got under way. Europe has been a huge disappointment too, but we’re not out of it yet either.

Today, four Scottish clubs take to the pitches of Latvia, Israel, Portugal and the Netherlands. There they will each battle a one legged away tie in the hope they can reach the play-off round of the Europa League.

Only Celtic and Rangers made it to the group stage last season. They also qualified from their groups with Neil Lennon securing qualification with two games to spare as well as securing top spot and Steven Gerard qualifying in second place.

It’s fair to say that it was a surprise to see both teams finished in their respective positions. However, it was our rivals who managed to go one round further.

When Celtic drew FC Copenhagen in the last 32, I thought they had an excellent chance of getting to the last 16. Having drawn 1-1 in Denmark, things were set up nicely for a return to Celtic Park.

Things didn’t go to plan though. Despite being in the better position, a goalless first half handed Copenhagen hope and they scored shortly after the interval to take the lead on aggregate.

Celtic levelled from the spot in the 83rd minute and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Instead of seeing the game out though, the visitors went up the other end of the park and scored two minutes later.

With the 90 minutes looming it wasn’t looking good and it got worse three minutes later. Clearly buzzing at their last minute heroics, Copenhagen piled on the misery to seal the tie with another goal.

It was a crazy and deflating night for Celtic. Rangers had already sealed their place in the last 16 with a home and away win over Braga the day before and it seemed unthinkable that we weren’t going to be joining them.

I don’t know what happened that night, but it shouldn’t have ended like that. Did we underestimate Copenhagen or were they just simply better than us?

Well, they beat Istanbul Basaksehir in the next round, whilst Rangers got stuffed by Bayer Leverkusen. What’s more interesting is that Copenhagen faced Manchester United in the quarter final last month and lost just to an extra-time penalty.

So perhaps they were a better side and we underestimated them? Whatever the case, it is clear Celtic have the ability to surprise and disappoint us in Europe.

There was nothing quite like beating Lazio home and away last season. Equally, we’ve had our dreams shattered three years running by failing to qualify for the Champions League.

Tonight I am under no illusions when we face Riga. They may only have been founded six years ago, but I am taking nothing for granted when it comes to Celtic in Europe.

We’re away from home for the first time this season in Europe. It’s a one legged tie and anything can happen.

In their entire history Riga exited Europe to CSKA Sofia in 2018 and our usurpers last season, FC Copenhagen in 2019, both in the qualifying rounds. Though given our need for a sports psychologist, erratic form, heavy squad rotation and continual transfer speculation, I’ll be on the edge of my seat this evening.

If we exit Europe tonight or in the two-legged play-off round, I don’t think I’ll be overly disappointed. European nights are one of our most savoured occasions as Celtic fans, but in the current climate I don’t think it would be too much of a miss.

Financially, it may have a greater impact, but I sense that player sales are where we will get most of our income between now and the end of the season. The real focus is of course 10IAR and I would sacrifice every other competition for that right now.

However, we’ll see what Neil Lennon and the team show us tonight before throwing in the European towel right now. It’ll also be interesting to see how Motherwell do against Hapoel Beer-Sheva, Aberdeen fair against Sporting Lisbon and Rangers do against Willem II.

The latter I suspect will be a bit of a love-in ending with an away win. Aberdeen would really surprise me if they got a result in Lisbon and Motherwell may struggle out in Israel.

If I were a betting man I wouldn’t say any more than two Scottish clubs will make the play-off round this evening. Sad, but also very realistic.

I hope Celtic can at least erase the error against Ferencvaros, who last night earned a 3-3 away result against Molde. That game will be decided in the second leg, but right now it is looking good for the Hungarian champions.

Tonight though all eyes will be on Scotland’s European hopes. Tonight they live or die.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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