In a regular column, our resident historian Graeme McKay delves into Celtic’s rich history and take a closer look at the players, coaches and teams that makes up the tapestry of the club. In this edition, he looks at Celtic’s history in the Champions League groups stages and the questions it raises for the future.
Scott Sinclair probably didn’t realise the historical significance of the swing of his left foot, but the fans in the stadium and the ones watching on TV were well aware: the 3 goals scored in Anderlecht would go down in history alongside the 3 goals scored in Moscow in 2012 as the only away victories Celtic have achieved in the Champions League proper.
The night in Belgium wasn’t just important in the modern biography of Celtic, it also did a lot to improve on Brendan Rodgers’ record in the contest. As Liverpool manager, Rodgers won only 1 Champions League match from 6 attempts – an inauspicious 2-1 home win over Ludogorets of Bulgaria. He was also roundly criticised that season for sending a second string to play Real Madrid so that he could rest important players for league duty (in the paradoxical hope of gaining qualification to the Champions League, I guess). Real Madrid had, of course, just beaten Liverpool 3-0 at Anfield on Matchday 3.
There were some moans from Celtic fans following the humiliating/expected (delete as applicable) defeat at home to Paris Saint-Germain that perhaps the team should have been set up to contain, in a similar way to what Neil Lennon’s team did against Barcelona. This posed some existential questions for a lot of Celtic fans – what is the point in being in the Champions League if you can’t play the Celtic Way?
For people my generation, the Celtic Way is Martin O’Neill’s 3:5:2 – the team and the style that enabled qualification to the Champions League for the first time. The line-up for Celtic’s first ever Champions League match is essentially what I regard to be the “Martin O’Neill Celtic team”. Douglas in goals, a back three of Valgaeren, Mjallby and Balde, Thompson and Agathe at wing back, Lennon and Lambert supporting Petrov in the middle and Sutton and Larsson upfront. What a wonderfully balanced team, brimming with quality.
The Celtic tactic was to go toe-to-toe with Juventus, and it almost worked – a last-minute Amoruso dive in the away leg being the difference. Italians love a slow start, and with Juventus having only kicked off their domestic campaign on the 26th of August, a Champions League game against an energetic Celtic side on the 18th of September was always going to be a tricky match. Celtic had more attempts on goal than Juventus, but had fallen to what would become a standard going forward – an away loss. But as the Guardian noted – they were magnificent and they were robbed, no question. Glorious defeat.
Celtic went on to dominate both Porto and Rosenborg at home, but perhaps struggled to break down their tight defences. Porto were pre-Mourinho, but already had Deco and Carvalho in place. Rosenborg were a Champions League machine, but by the halfway point, Celtic were on top of the group with 6 points, 1 above Juventus and 2 above Porto. Most fans didn’t know that 2 of the last 3 games being away from home was going to be such a problem.
Celtic were dismantled in Oporto and in Trondheim. It was looking increasingly like Martin O’Neill had one mode for this Celtic team – aggressive and attacking, concise and direct. Within the first minute, Porto were one-up and Celtic were fairly lucky to escape with a 3-0 defeat, having not managed to get an effort on goal. The same tactics were adopted in Norway and they saw Celtic lose two goals in the first half, as well as concede a penalty that was ultimately missed. From a position of strength, qualification was now out of Celtic’s hands.
Celtic would finish the group on 9 points and many teams have qualified with such a tally (indeed, Rangers managed to make the last 16 with only 1 group stage victory), and it could be argued that they were that Amoruso dive away from the last 16 (Juventus were, however, already qualified in first place by Matchday 6 at Celtic Park, and therefore would have taken the game differently if qualification depended on it). But the clear indication from the campaign was that Martin O’Neill had a mode and that would sometimes be blistering (all the time, domestically), but sometimes, when faced with cannier opponents, be naïve and a liability.
Celtic’s second attempt at the Champions League would begin with similar heartbreak to the first. This time, it is Munich instead of Turin and an 89th minute penalty is replaced by an 86th minute Roy Makaay goal, placed on a silver platter by an awful defensive header from Stan Varga. Martin O’Neill mode was back and it again almost caught out a European giant. In Matchday 2 at Celtic Park, it demolished Lyon, and on Matchday 4 at Celtic Park it took apart Anderlecht.
But, of course, it was the matchdays when Celtic were on the road that would again prove tricky. Anderlecht ran out comfortable winners. How could Celtic take FC Bayern to the wire in Munich, but have fewer than half of the attempts on goal of a Belgium team that played with 10 men for most of the match?
When Celtic travelled away from home, they seemed to capitulate completely against teams that were not regarded as the best of the best. Indeed, Celtic fans worried more about away trips to the likes of Anderlecht and Rosenborg than they did against Bayern, Juventus and Lyon. What was it about the Martin O’Neill side that caused this aberration? Was it a lack of ability to motivate the players when not playing the bigger teams? That doesn’t seem realistic, especially for a coach like O’Neill who was famous for his motivating skills.
Or perhaps it was the case that the teams that rolled over Celtic on the road knew that they had to engage in a tactical battle and the predictability of the Celtic lineup played right into their hands. The teams that worried about us, that didn’t take us for granted, were ultimately more prepared for us than we were comfortable with. They knew what to expect and we were clueless.
This is all sounding incredibly harsh on such a wonderful Celtic team, especially considering Celtic ended up a Bobo Balde moment of madness away from drawing in Lyon and making it out of the group. But a troubling precedent was being set (an away day protocol, perhaps? Cough) and it would continue season after season, surviving managerial changes.
Gordon Strachan’s first season in the Champions League was a carbon copy of a Martin O’Neill attempt. Celtic rose their game wonderfully for a battle of Britain in Manchester, narrowly losing to a Ryan Giggs dive. They took care of the other teams at home, beating Copenhagen 1-0 and Benfica 3-0 (Kenny Miller, CL legend…) before completely disintegrating in a chaotic 22 minutes in Lisbon. Another 3-0 away defeat in Portugal. It was becoming a holiday tradition.
But Celtic Park was a fortress, Manchester United went down 1-0 and qualification to the last 16 was secured on Matchday 5. The final match of the group would allow Celtic to travel to Denmark with the pressure off, but knowing that they could finish top of the group. 27 minutes later and 2 goals down, Celtic were on the end of another away day pumping against a middling European team. A picture-perfect representation of Martin O’Neill’s first CL campaign. Gallant performance against the Euro elite away, beat them at home, take care of the others at home, a wee pumping in Portugal and a loss to a provincial team on the road – 9 points gained. This time, however, 9 points was enough to qualify.
In Strachan’s following season Celtic won 3 home games, narrowly lost to Milan away and lost away to Portuguese opposition (of course) and in Ukraine. Strachan again qualified with 9 points.
O’Neill and Strachan are often compared, and the biggest similarity has to be their Champions League records. But it’s not only the numbers and stats that match up, it is also the fact that Martin O’Neill’s team played O’Neill mode in all 12 games in question and Gordon Strachan’s team played full Strachan mode in their games. There never seemed to be change of tempo to suit opposition in Europe, it was always hell for leather. And that worked. A lot. At home. But for both managers there was a blind spot when it came to operating away from home in the Champions League against teams that were either of comparable stature or thereabouts. It was “go Martin/Gordon or go home”. And sometimes it worked. Most of the time it was thrilling. But it rarely felt measured.
Neil Lennon bucked this trend, although he did keep the obligatory defeat in Portugal. But the campaign started in Glasgow and it was perhaps a sign of the decrease in quality at Celtic from 2001 to 2012, as the team were unable to blow Benfica away at Celtic Park. Indeed, in a 0-0 game Benfica had more attempts on goal and forced more corners. It’s harder to go hell for leather against decent opposition when your team is less Larsson and more Miku.
The bucking started on Matchday 2 with a surprise 3-2 win over Spartak in Moscow. In the kind of CL performance usually reserved for top seeds, Celtic condescended to get it up Spartak, coming from behind against 10 men to win. It was monumental. As monumental as a win could be against a team whose star player was Aiden McGeady. But it was the doubleheader against Barcelona that really showed signs that this campaign was going to be different. Lennon set up Celtic to destroy, not to create. He was rewarded with a narrow defeat deep in injury time at the Nou Camp and, of course, that famous night where that guy off www.watttowatch.com scored.
There is a clear moment in recent Celtic history where the manager went from thinking – we are Celtic, we have players A, B and C, let’s do them – to thinking – we are Celtic, we have Miku and Ambrose, let’s keep it tight. That moment, when Celtic gave up on the Celtic Way in order to attempt qualification, was probably the most defining moment in recent Champions League history. Lennon was not asking himself how to get his side to play the Celtic Way, he was asking himself – how do I get this team to qualify?
And this is the question a lot of Celtic fans were pondering after the recent Paris visit to Glasgow and the visit to Munich. Is this Celtic team good enough to qualify out of a Champions League group by playing their own game? Last season Brendan Rodgers attempted to and was met with 3 draws and a goal difference of -11. It comes down to an almost idiotic-sounding question – would you rather Celtic had gone to the Nou Camp last season and attempted to play their game or would you rather they had gone and attempted to completely shut up shop?
Another question would be – are the super teams of today (last season’s Barcelona and this season’s Paris Saint-Germain) a completely different breed to what previous Celtic managers faced in the Champions League? How would Caldwell and McManus have coped with Neymar, Cavani, Mbappe, Lewandowski and Robben? Is this Celtic team a victim of the ever-increasing chasm between the haves and the have nots?
With complete domestic dominance and a team that now seems comfortable in navigating its way into the Champions League group stages, where they are likely to meet an elite richer and better than ever, it’s a question that will keep coming up for Brendan Rodgers and Celtic. Should they go to places such as Paris and Munich to impose themselves as an O’Neill or Strachan team would have done OR should they go there to park the bus and defend for a draw? Will Rodgers chose the Celtic Way or the Pragmatic Way?
Or maybe both?