Celtic in Europe: a trip down memory lane

With Celtic’s first Europa League tie coming up on Thursday away to Ajax, many of the club’s fans are hoping for the best but preparing the worst. The club’s Champions League exit and away defeat to ten man Aberdeen at the weekend has caused ill feeling to resurface against Ronny Deila and his back room staff.

‘Clueless’ and ‘naive’ are two of the kinder words expressed to characterise his squad selection and tactics of late. Criticism has, and not for the first time, also been levelled at the boardroom and more specifically Peter Lawwell on several matters including player purchases and finances.

As one fellow blogger wrote, this is exactly the kind of supporter reaction you tend to see when the chips are down. I’ve omitted some of the more absurd gestures and comments I’ve read as they don’t deserve an airing on here.

Little blame has been directed toward the playing squad. In fact many supporters have even chosen to lay off the referees.

Player and officials have not been completely overlooked though. They’ve just slid down the pecking order behind coaching staff and the men in suits.

Losing is part of the game. Without it, there would be no glory in winning.

Win all the time? Predictable.

Where would we be without the highs ‘n’ lows of football? Sitting in domestic bliss for an unchallenged eternity no doubt.

Celtic and their deceased rivals have done enough of that between themselves. With Celtic the key player in a leanly contested league, losing isn’t a disaster – it’s good for the game.

The Champions League was what we all craved this season and missing out on this is a different story altogether. Winning that competition is out of reach but that goal coupled with the revenue and media exposure is what motivates everyone and drives us forward.

So the disappointment at not being in the group phase is something we all share and suffer from – club, coach, player and boardroom member. Before the Champions League ship had even sailed for Celtic, some people asked the question that if Deila should fail at the second time of asking, would he deserve a third?

In answer to that I would say that all depends on how this season goes. I’m still opposed to ousting the Norwegian coach and more interested in seeing how Celtic respond between now and Christmas, particularly in the Europa League.

We should remember that despite two failed attempts at reaching the Champions League group phase we are still in Europe. It may not be the Champions League but we have now been in the Europa League for two years running now.

Every Celtic manager in the past has had mixed fortunes in Europe. For a look at those stuttered beginnings, lets take a trip down memory lane.

Martin O’Neill made it through to the second round of the UEFA Cup in his first season at Celtic having played three rounds in total. The following season he would fair better by taking the club into the Champions League group stage for the first time in their history.

A 3-1 win for O’Neill in Amsterdam took everyone by surprise. Losing the home leg 1-0 was of little consequence.

Despite winning all three group phase home matches that season, no points were picked up on the road. Celtic finished third and parachuted into the UEFA Cup where after an aggregate score of 1-1 with Valencia, lost 5-4 on penalties at Celtic Park, denying them a place in the fourth round.

Unlike today’s set-up, all of those fixtures took place before Christmas so Celtic were out of Europe by December. I can’t imagine cramming all of that in these days!

In the season that followed, O’Neill exited the Champions League qualification campaign at the hands of Basel. That twist of fate would set Celtic on the memorable UEFA Cup run taking the club to the final in Seville in 2003.

Like Lisbon and Milan before, these are memorable achievements which the club’s history is built upon, even if they were not all winning finals. Seville in particular helped put Celtic back on the European map and would be Martin’s legacy.

In the aftermath of that defeat at the hands of Mourinho’s cheating Porto, O’Neill would have another crack at the Champions League. Despite some thrilling encounters in the group phase of the 2003-2004 Champions League, Celtic came up short and parachuted into the UEFA Cup once more.

After successfully navigating two rounds of that competition, including an aggregate 1-0 win over Barcelona, Celtic faced Villarreal in the Quarter Final. Sadly, they lost out to the Spanish side who would then be ousted themselves by another Spanish team in the shape of Valencia who would eventually go on to win the tournament.

In Martin O’Neill’s final season, he would make the group phase of the Champions League one more time. With legend Henrik Larsson having said his farewells to the club, it was somewhat ironic and painful that he would face Celtic in a Barcelona jersey and score against us at Celtic Park.

That was the low point in what was a poor European campaign that saw Celtic finish fourth in the group with one win and five points. It was the end of an era for Celtic and for Martin O’Neill.

Then came Gordon Strachan and a new wave of European drama. At the first time of asking Gordon exited Europe in big style.

Losing 5-0 away to Artmedia Bratislava was a devastating blow to winning over the fans. A 4-0 home win wasn’t enough to level the playing field or keep Celtic in Europe.

Strachan had already caused ripples amongst large sections of the support just by being the new manager. Some had it in for him from the beginning.

Having still managed to win the league that season though, Celtic entered the Champions League group phase without any qualifying rounds. Not only did Strachan turn over some great results, he took Celtic to the last sixteen of the tournament for the first time in their history.

He had succeeded where O’Neill had failed. Results had conspired against O’Neill but not for Strachan it seemed.

Celtic would eventually lose out against AC Milan 1-0 on aggregate after extra time in the round of sixteen. However, the Italian’s would go on to win the tournament for the seventh time by beating Liverpool.

When you look at it that way, that’s a damn good effort by Celtic and Strachan. The two teams would come to meet again the following season.

A memorable Champions League qualifying round against Spartak Moscow saw Celtic into the group phase again. There they would face Milan and in the dying moments of the Celtic Park tie, they beat the European Champions 2-1.

That difficult win was key in securing second spot and a place in the last sixteen for the second successive season. Celtic would face Barcelona in the knock-out round, a team they had beaten and been beaten by in recent times.

The Catalan giants were beginning to emerge as one of the best teams in Europe. They beat Celtic home and away 4-2 on aggregate but they themselves would exit the tournament in the Semi Finals at the hands of eventual Champions League winners, Manchester United.

Gordon Strachan would finish his third Champions League campaign and final season just as Martin O’Neill had. Celtic secured just 5 points and one win finishing fourth in their group.

Despite that humbling season, Strachan had taken Celtic a step forward in Europe. Many had despaired at the quality of football and I would to agree to a certain extent.

However, we had some great European nights under Gordon and some very respectable victories. The last sixteen was now the benchmark for the next manager and would be his legacy.

Unfortunately the Celtic challenge would now fall to Tony Mowbray. He managed to take down Dinamo Moscow 2-1 on aggregate in their first qualifying round but they would be comprehensively disposed of by Arsenal 5-1 on aggregate the next.

That meant a first time experience for Celtic in the Europa League. Celtic finished third in the group phase in a season which saw Mowbray sacked after a poor domestic campaign.

Then came Neil Lennon, like Mowbray a fans favourite as a player, but less experience in the dug out. First he was appointed as caretaker, then given the reigns that summer.

In his first full season, Lennon would exit both the Champions League (to SC Braga) and Europa League (to FC Utrecht) tournaments in the qualifying rounds. It was rather humbling but not a total surprise given his lack of experience as a coach.

The following season FC Sion stood in the way of Lennon and the Europa League group phase. He would have failed once more had it not been for a breach of a UEFA ruling by the Swiss club.

Having fielded ineligible players during the ties with Celtic, FC Sion were excluded from the tournament and Celtic were reinstated despite being beaten by the Swiss club. This allowed Lennon a crack at the group phase of a European tournament as a head coach.

It was a pivotal season for Lennon on home soil as well as on foreign. Celtic would eventually finish third in their group.

Although a largely disappointing campaign, the 1-1 match against Rennes over in France was one of two games that season that marked a turning point for Lennon’s Celtic career. The other game was a domestic match away to Kilmarnock which finished 3-3, five days earlier.

These games turned the tide for Lennon. In both matches Celtic were away from home and had to come from behind to earn a draw.

Lennon later stated that after being 3-0 down to Kilmarnock at half-time he seriously though about chucking in the towel. Having gone down 1-0 to Rennes, thanks to an audacious Cha Du-Ri own goal, the same thoughts must have been going through his head.

Celtic fought back to claim a draw in both matches though. They would go on to win the league that season having gone on an unbeaten run in the league beginning with that draw against Kilmarnock.

What would follow in season 2012-2013 was an excellent campaign in the Champions League. Having qualified via two rounds, Celtic were paired once more with Barcelona and Benfica in the group phase of this tournament with recent knock out phase opponents Spartak Moscow completing the list of opponents.

Before the group phase got under way, Celtic were given little chance of finishing third, let alone second by the critics. As it was they would beat the odds and finish second behind Barcelona having beaten the Catalan giants 2-1 at Celtic Park in one of the most memorable matches for Celtic in the modern-day.

Lennon had achieved the impossible. After two previously disappointing seasons in Europe, it was a real turnaround.

Celtic made the last sixteen of the Champions League for only the third time. Even though they would go down in the knock-out round to Juventus, it was against all odds that Celtic got their in the first place.

It was a testimony to the perseverance of the Northern Irishman after a long period where trouble off the field would dominate the headlines and threaten the life of himself and his family. Lennon showed great character and with the backing of the fans and the club beat the evil that has plagued football.

The next season would be tough on the park though. Despite three rounds of qualifiers, Celtic made the Champions League group phase but this was the group of death.

Ajax, Barcelona and Milan were the opponents. Celtic won one match losing the other five.

This would be the club’s worst Champions League tournament in history. In fairness to Neil Lennon, the club had sold three of their best players before the group phase got under way and were not suitably equipped with replacements.

And so Lennon left after that season and in came Ronny Deila. We know his story and this season Europe has been similar to the last with the exception of the Legia Warsaw fiasco of course.

Having looked at O’Neill, Strachan, Mowbray and Lennon’s experiences in Europe I don’t think Deila deserves to be shown the door. O’Neill and Strachan didn’t have a blistering start to their Celtic careers in Europe.

Mowbray’s didn’t cover himself in glory or have much of a legacy to speak of. Lennon’s had a very poor start but he came good even if he came up short in the end.

For Ronny Deila, missing out on the Champions League two season in a row has overshadowed making the Europa League group two years running. When you also consider he got to the last sixteen at the first time if asking, only losing out narrowly to Inter Milan in the end, I think it is harsh to be calling for his head.

In times like this when morale is low we should be supporting the team. Not slaying it from boardroom to dressing room.

Unlike many bloggers and forum frolickers, I choose to support Ronny and his back room team. I give me backing to the squad as well, even if I do have some criticisms I would like to share.

Let the players and coaching staff rectify the Champions League exit by giving them a chance in the Europa League. Similarly, let the domestic season unfold as it should.

A defeat on Thursday would not be game over. A win is not a guarantee of qualification either.

It’s all about the bigger picture and we must remain positive. There’s more hard work to be done so let’s not throw in the towel just yet.

Let’s see how things play out. We’ll have a better idea of where we are by Christmas.

If we’re still going strong then we’ll see how the season has gone come May. Should people still want to ask about that third chance base it on the two seasons that will hopefully then be completed by Deila.

Keep the faith.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Make your own history at the San Siro

Another week, another Thursday night Europa League match to look forward to. After a dramatic and pulsating ninety-plus minutes at Paradise last week, the honours are even.

It is anyone’s guess how tonight’s second leg encounter will turn out. What Celtic require though, is not completely out of the question.

If I felt Celtic had to be cautious going into last weeks match, then they must be vigilant this week. There are enough signs to suggest that this tie is far from over but lessons must also be learned from last week.

Italy isn’t a happy hunting ground for Celtic, having never won there. A 1-1 draw with Udinese in the group phase of the same competition back in 2011 is the best offering since a 0-0 against Inter Milan in a 1972 European Cup Semi-final, 1st leg.

The San Siro was the venue for that semi-final 1st leg. It remains an unlucky stadium for Celtic regardless of the opponents be it Inter, AC or even Feyenoord.

Does that mean Celtic will suffer a similar fate once more? Has history confined us to eternal misery in Milan?

Well to be fair, winning away from home is never an easy task in Europe anyway. Particularly when your opponents are Italian or of the Milan persuasion.

That doesn’t mean Ronny Deila’s Celtic side cannot write their own piece of history tonight. To make progress in Europe, you must overcome the hurdles that stand in your way.

Martin O’Neill put Celtic back on the European map by taking them into the Champions League group phase for their first, second and third time. And nobody needs reminding about the year we went to Seville.

Gordon Strachan took the club one step further by making the last 16 of the Champions League on two occasions. He did so with what many would say was an inferior team to his predecessors.

Under Neil Lennon, we have one of our most memorable encounters of the modern day by beating Barcelona at Celtic Park. Lennon also got Celtic’s only ever away win in the group phase that season as well as making the last 16 like Strachan.

The question is will we see Ronny Deila make this kind of leap forward this season? Maybe, maybe not but my gut feeling is that he doing all the right things to make it happen in the future for certain.

Celtic cannot compete with the top club transfer fees or the superstar salaries. What they can do is raise the level of expectation at the club.

As Ronny Deila said earlier in the season:

“if you see the fitness in the Champions League its unbelievable. Celtic is a big club, we want to go there. If we want to do that then we have to look outside the country, not inside.”

And by that, the Celtic head coach was talking about thinking outside the box and adopting top club methods. This is how you meet your opponent in Europe, by implementing the same standards of fitness, lifestyle and overall performance.

You bring any kind of player into a set up like that and you will soon learn if he has the ability to make it. Not only that, but it can attract a better candidate in the future.

Deila has seen his current players step up and meet the bar. It didn’t happen instantly, but he stuck to his plan when others were bashing him.

Now he has a squad of players that have all accepted that challenge and are willing to improve. That work must continue tonight as Celtic look to eliminate last weeks mistakes and take their chances.

If the Hoops can show the same determination and spirit at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza tonight as they did last week in Glasgow, they will be in with a fighting chance. Should the last 32 of the Europa Cup be Ronny’s last stop of this European campaign, its been a helluva a ride for the Celtic support but I remain optimistic.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Goals, points and old rivals

I know it’s a modern trend to make an arse of yourself on Twitter, but you would think that sports personalities would learn from the mistakes of others? Well, it would seem not.

There have been two tweets and two apologies in the Celtic community over the last couple of days. It won’t be the last time this type if scenario occurs on Twitter either, but the timing of one tweet in particular is hardly the best way to prepare for one of your biggest games of the season.

The game in question is of course tomorrow night when Celtic take on Ajax at Celtic Park in the Champions League. They haven’t faced each other since 2001 when Ajax beat Celtic 1-0 in Glasgow.

That result didn’t matter in the end thanks to a jaw dropping 1-3 away win for Celtic from the first leg. It was sufficient enough to send Celtic through to the Champions League group stage for the first time in existence.

Neil Lennon played in both of those matches and now the teams meet once more. Interestingly enough, Lennon’s opposite number in the other dugout is one Frank De Boer.

Whilst each playing for Celtic and Rangers, they came up against each other on two occasions. Lennon was on the winning side both times.

Now both are in their first head coach jobs and both are desperate for points. It’s possible that Celtic and Ajax could be slugging it out for third spot in Group H, but we know how quickly things can change in the Champions League.

Celtic should be aiming to win their next three group games. It’s a tough ask given that so far its played two, lost two and no goals scored.

Ajax may only have one point and one goal but its one point and one goal more than Celtic have right now. De Boer will be looking to add to that tally and keep Neil Lennon and Celtic at bay.

The way I see it though is that tomorrow night is a blank canvas. Forget the last two Champions League match days.

Celtic’s campaign begins on Tuesday at 7.45pm. There is no point in looking back, only forward.

Yes, Lennon has injuries to his squad and a suspension to contend with. Thinking about that won’t help him or the club tomorrow night though.

He must take the players he does have available and galvanise their belief to win. Celtic are due to bang some goals in against someone soon because they’ve been playing well enough.

There have been some fantastic European nights at Celtic Park. I’ve watched from the terracing, from the stands a from my sofa.

I believe Tuesday can be one of those special nights. I didn’t think so against Barcelona.

Lennon knows what is at stake here. He won’t need to remind the players either, though I’m pretty sure he will.

A win for Celtic tomorrow would put them in third place. And if say Barcelona beat Milan home and away over the next two matches, Celtic could potentially go second in the group with the right kind of result in Amsterdam.

There are of course other permutations but it demonstrates the complexity of the group phase. So it should be both encouraging and motivating that despite two defeats and no goals you’re never out of it.

There’s no debate on Celtic’s passing or possession, it’s their ability to put the ball in the net that is my only concern. This season I’ve yet to see the kind of killer instinct in front of goal that can win you games.

There are goal scorers throughout the squad and I’ve seen some good goals so far this season, but Celtic have had little luck in the Champions Leaguw. At some point that luck has to change but not without being ruthless in front of goal.

Be it Forrest, Pukki, Samaras, Stokes or whoever it doesn’t matter. Celtic must take their chances tomorrow night because I am damn well sure they will be created.

Until tomorrow, Celtic. Glasgow here I come.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Until Tuesday then…

There’s nothing better than playing at a stadium with bit of noise. Sadly, there aren’t many to choose from in Scottish football anymore, but from my sofa Easter Road sounded decent enough for the viewer.

Celtic travelled to Edinburgh for the lunchtime kick off against Hibs. It wasn’t an eyecatching first half but at least the atmosphere generated was one more deserving of TV coverage.

Hibs took a disputable lead on 18 minutes much to the distaste of Neil Lennon. Celtic were closed down quickly and hassled off the ball during that first 45 minutes but it didn’t prevent them making attacking moves.

The second half saw a better performance from Celtic but it took until the 77th minute to draw level. As is often the case, they had the lions share of possession but still had to contend with some rough tackling from Hibs.

There was ample time and opportunity for Celtic to do something about the scoreline though. Neil Lennon had deployed a whole host of attackers but it was second half substitute James Forrest who scored for Celtic.

He’s often received criticism for disappearing in games but he showed the fans and his teammates where the goal was. It was a superb finish to the far post from the outside of the boot which is right up there with the best of this seasons goals so far.

Forrest almost grabbed another later on had it not been for an excellent one handed save from the Hibs keeper. The winger looked a little dejected at the end having come so close to getting all three points but he singlehandedly got one point for his club.

With a starting lineup including Commons, Pukki, Stokes and Samaras I suggest Lennon was trying to put this match to bed early. Had any of these players been as clinical as Forrest then the manager would have got his wish.

Instead Commons had to come off early with an injury. If it weren’t for the fact Celtic face Ajax on Tuesday he may even have walked that one off.

My feeling is that it was more a precautionary measure than a conclusive inury. That’s what I’m hoping for anyway.

One refreshing feature from yesterday’s match was the performance of Darnell Fisher. I first saw him turn in a good display against Liverpool, albeit it in a friendly.

It was always going to be a bit of a step up for him given the void left by Lustig and Matthews. On yesterdays contribution alone I would say he stood up to task well.

Fisher bore the brunt of the hefty tackling from Hibs but he also took it in his stride. His progress up the right channel often led to the exchange of passing moves rather than just a defending role.

Champions League duty may prove a daunting task for him should Lustig fail to be fit. I don’t think it will come to that but he seems capable for a young player.

From what I saw on TV, there is no doubt the Celtic players had their minds on the Ajax match yesterday but they can now give Tuesday their full attention. Decisions will be made in the next couple of days on the fitness of Commons, Lustig and Izaguirre.

Players who haven’t featured much recently such as Ledley will be considered for starting places as well. Though it is more likely that Kayal will be first pick in midfield along with Mulgrew.

There is also the option of new boy Nir Biton. He hasn’t looked out of place on early viewing and with the absence of Scott Brown for the next three Champions League games, Neil Lennon will need as many options as possible.

On the attacking front, things need to settle down. Stokes has started the season on spectacular form but he isn’t an out-and-out striker.

Despite some goals, Pukki hasn’t settled in yet but his role is in the striking department and hopefully there will be more to come from him very soon. Samaras looks confident right now but a goal from him and a victory on Tuesday night would supercharge the Greek for sure.

In the Champions League he has been fantastic for Lennon. Two narrow defeats against Milan and Barcelona haven’t prevented him from putting in good performances either so Lennon will be counting on him big time.

Celtic’s first Champions League points must be taken against Ajax. In the stands the fans will be right behind the players and I’ll be in travelling north to be there.

I can’t wait. Until Tuesday, Bhoys.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie