“Bye bye Celtic. They’ve drawn Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow.”
It would be scandalous on Neil Lennon to accredit Celtic’s success in the UEFA Champions League to this tweet from ITV, though it certainly didn’t hinder them in any way. Hell bent on proving their many doubters wrong Celtic produced some stunning displays to progress through the group stage with a record high 10 points, ditching their “can’t win away” tag with a 3-2 defeat of Spartak in Moscow. The highlight of the season was undoubtedly the slaying of Barcelona on the 125th anniversary of the club, but while the European campaign was the pinnacle for the fans, the bread and butter of the SPL was what really mattered for Lennon in order to give his side a platform to build on and make entrance to club football’s premier competition for a second year running a possibility. Despite a few slip ups along the way Celtic cruised to the title and comfortably disposed of Hibernian in the Scottish Cup final with a fine individual display from Anthony Stokes against his former club.
The off season saw a number of players leave; loanees Miku and Rami Gershon returned to their clubs having failed to impress in their spell at Glasgow, Daryl Murphy was allowed to join Ipswich Town on a permanent basis having spent the last two seasons on loan at Portman Road, youngster James Keatings signed for Hamilton Accies on a free transfer, and fringe players Paddy McCourt, Thomas Rogne and Lassad were released having struggled to cement first team places over the last year.
A typical pre-season ensued with Celtic looking lacklustre, losing every game and fans starting to panic. The difference between this year and other seasons however was that only thirty-eight days separated the Scottish cup final and the first pre-season friendly, with only a further two weeks to get prepared for the first competitive game of the season in the Champions League qualifier versus Cliftonville.
Another unusual sight for us Tims was seeing considerable money, by our standards, spent on two new players before the end of June. Amido Balde and Virgil van Dijk were paraded at paradise as the squad looked to get set for the qualifiers. After being linked with moves away from Celtic by the Scottish media from the moment he walked through the door, Victor Wanyama finally completed his move to Southampton. The player had some wonderful moments in a Celtic shirt and while I am disappointed he settled for a bottom half of the table Premier League side, he leaves with my best wishes. The other long drawn out saga for the fans has been the will-he-won’t-he situation with Gary Hooper. Gary has been magnificent in his time at Celtic but with a year left on his contract, him refusing to sign a new deal, and his heart clearly set on a move back to England, Lennon has reluctantly accepted he will be leaving, but not for less than his asking price. QPR’s bid of just under £5m has seemingly met that valuation and it is now up to the player to decide his future. While I always like to see ex-players doing well you have to question the ambition of swapping potential Champions League football for the same league he departed three years ago in order to join Celtic, the Championship. Hooper, like Wanyama, will be a miss, but having eased past Cliftonville to advance to a 3rd qualifying round tie versus Swedish champions Elfsborg, what does the season ahead hold for Celtic?
The Cliftonville matches were a great occasion for the fans and saw Neil Lennon take his side to his home country in a competitive game for the first time. However, the hard work really starts now. Elfsborg’s league campaign kicked off on April 1stso they are well into the swing of things as was displayed in their 11-1 aggregate demolition of Daugava in their 2nd round tie. This will be a tough draw for Celtic but with a further week to prepare and the prospect of more signings (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/23428680) ahead of the match, a professional display should allow the quality in the side to see us progress. If the returning Mo Bangura features for Elfsborg every Celtic fan will be wishing he shows the same quality as he did before he was shipped out on loan, though a man with a point to prove could be a very hazardous prospect for Celtic. Let’s hope he doesn’t do a Harald Brattbakk. Assuming all the top seeds progress through the 3rd round Celtic will face one of the following at the play-off stage: Dinamo Zagreb, Partizan Belgrade, Austria Wien, Legia Warsaw, Shakhtyor Karaganda. Victory will place us back in the group stages for the second year running, with defeat seeing us drop down into the Europa League. Once again there are some very tricky opponents on offer, with away trips to Zagreb or Belgrade posing especially difficult prospects. Celtic are, however, the seeded side in every round and no matter who we draw we should be aiming to beat. Progress to the group stage of the Champions League is clearly the objective for the next month or so, but a replica of last season’s success is looking increasingly unlikely. Celtic will, once again, be ranked as a pot 4 side with a group of death scenario containing the likes of Bayern Munich, AC Milan and Manchester City a possibility. The best we could hope for would probably be a group consisting of Benfica, CSKA Moscow and Basel.
While those special nights at Celtic Park can see us beat anyone on our day, I think the real objective for the season must be to qualify for the Champions League proper. A 3rd place finish in the group stage and a run in the Europa League could be an ideal scenario. While the money on offer in the Europa League cannot compare to the Champions League, the co-efficient points can. By dropping out at the group stage last year Benfica gathered 28.350 points as they finished runners up in the Europa League. Only their conquerors in that final, Chelsea, and the two Champions League finalists Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund achieved a higher points total last season. While every fan wants to be competing at the highest level a run in the Europa League could give our co-efficient ranking a much needed boost, not to mention the potential for another European final appearance, after all, it was us that beat Benfica to 2nd place in the group relegating them to the Europa League in the first place. This is not me saying I want us to finish 3rdin our group if we get there. I want to see us go as far as we can in the Champions League. I merely think a run in the Europa League could prove a more realistic objective this season.
The league title will come, we have too much quality and there is too much inconsistency from the other sides for it not to. For the interest of the fans I am hopeful that teams such as Aberdeen, Dundee United, Motherwell and St. Johnstone, on the back of their fantastic away defeat of Rosenborg, will pose some questions for Celtic to answer and ensure the league remains competitive until the latter weeks of the season (not too competitive mind!).
The cups offer a chance to rotate the squad somewhat and while a treble would be a brilliant achievement and offer some great days out for the fans, the Scottish and League cups will not be top of the list of our priorities.
With Hooper on his way I hope to see at least another two players coming in before the window closes; a centre forward and a creative midfielder with a bit of flare, although I do hold very high hopes for both Tony Watt and Tom Rogic for the season ahead.
For me qualifying for the Champions League, finishing 3rdand going on a run to the quarter/semi-finals of the Europa League, winning the title and one of the cups, would be a very successful and I believe achievable season for Celtic this year. Anything more would be fantastic and if we can improve on our last 16 appearance in the Champions League last season I will be in dream land. Whatever happens I’m sure there will be plenty of ups and downs throughout the campaign and hopefully some more of those special European nights.