On nights like last night, “Celtic stunned in Champions League qualifier” is often a favourite headline – or something similarly sensationalised.
The reality of Celtic’s latest Champions League exit though was no great surprise for those who’ve witnessed it time and again in recent years. Sure, the decisive goal came from a counter attack late on in the game (if you can label a hoofed clearance bouncing it’s way through our defence a “counter attack”, that is), and if it fits into the required dramatics of clickbaiting you could easily create a narrative surrounding a devastating sucker punch leaving Celtic shocked.
But you would be wrong.
Whilst I’m sure no Celtic fan anticipated such a performance a few hours before the game, as the rumours swirled around pre-match that not only would Edouard be missing, but Christie would be replacing him in the lone striker role, that sinking feeling of dread would have already engulfed large swathes of the support.
Within seven minutes, that apprehension had been realised as each and every one of us watching through our screens registered that we’d in fact seen this movie before.
Emotions naturally run high in the immediate aftermath of defeats like these – we should know, we’re not just well-versed in them now, we’re at the pinnacle of our field – but it’s hard to argue against this year’s Champions League “campaign” constituting the worst of our recent trilogy.
From signings not being made early enough to allow them to integrate properly before our most important games of the season, to players regularly being played out of position; from poor decision making in decisive moments on the park, to the lack of it entirely coming from the dugout – these are all elements that have repeated themselves each and every year, and yet still we believe, or hope, that this time it will be different.
Of course the extraordinary external circumstances of 2020 will have made preparation for this year’s qualifiers harder than most, but what makes this particular reoccurrence so hard to fathom is in its execution as opposed to simply its result.
Last night’s defeat was not just a consequence of the aforementioned factors, in many ways the performance presented a more fundamental flaw which has repeated in every other insipid and uninspired display so far this season.
While not quite all of our early season showings have fallen into the ‘turgid’ category, each time Celtic have stepped onto the park in recent weeks two main, alarming characteristics of our game have been undeniably evident: our lack of creativity and impotence trying to find a way through a tight defensive line; and, our inability to defend against basic long balls upfield to a quick, strong target man.
It may seem reactionary following last night’s result but in this early part of the season Celtic’s attacking play has proved extremely one dimensional: dominate possession, play it wide to the fullbacks to cross, if they can’t find space recycle possession back and across the park. Repeat until opportunity to cross presents itself, if it doesn’t, shoot, mostly aimlessly, from anywhere around the box.
Whilst that no doubt reflects a naïve, oversimplified evaluation, for any upcoming opponent truly analysing our matches it wouldn’t take long to identify overwhelming and unimaginative patterns of our play.
Last night, even as we finally began to influence the game around the 40th minute mark, it was hard to ignore the overriding concern that we simply wouldn’t carve out enough clearcut goalscoring opportunities to win the game, and that even if we were to, it was unlikely we’d limit Ferencvaros to the one goal they’d already scored.
Both fears proved to come true, and although in the second half we sporadically played some of our most intricate attacking football of the season around our opponent’s box, we still lacked the imagination and influence to determine the outcome of the tie.
Ferencvaros’ winner was as predictable as it was infuriating.
Some may argue it came against the run of play, but as Sergei Rebrov’s comments implied – “Most of the time we defended, but football is about scoring goals, not about the possession of the ball.” – it had an air of inevitability surrounding it. It was their gameplan. Something we, once more, didn’t appear to have.
The fallout from this year’s exit will no doubt be harsh. Our opponents were of a significantly lower standard than even our previous two campaigns, and the financial implications of a third successive year without Champions League money will hit harder, particularly considering the economic impact the pandemic has already had on the club.
The most significant consequence of our failure to qualify is likely to be in terms of the playing squad, with the only way to recover the financial burden being to sell one, or some, of our assets.
Rather than ourselves determining who is most dispensable, the biggest problem could now be in trying to convince at least one of those star names to stay. Lennon’s post match comments indicated as much.
The sad but clear reality is that the Europa League is this Celtic squad’s level – at least in terms of actually competing if we make it to the group stages. But what makes these Champions League qualifying defeats so hard to swallow each year is not simply missing out on the main prize, but in the manner of our failure.
When we have previously suffered humiliating Champions League group stage defeats at the hands of the bankrolled superclubs we have been quick to cry foul of modern football’s financial inequality, yet here we are, once again, suffering a humiliating defeat in qualification to a side whose squad was built on a budget only a fraction of our own.
If certain players did in fact already want to leave the club, the immediate repercussions of the defeat to Ferencvaros could well be vast, and whilst you or I may be able to identify the same repeated mistakes each and every season, until these are acknowledged and responsibility is taken throughout the club (boardroom, management, and players alike) the likelihood of further reruns seems inevitable.