By Christopher Duffy
AS THE curtain closed on yet another European adventure for Celtic last night, it is already time for manager Brendan Rodgers to start building towards next season’s gruelling set of Champions League qualifying rounds.
Rodgers has already spoken about the possibility of using the January transfer window, if the right players become available, in order to let new players adapt to the club and let them settle into the squad in plenty of time, for arguably the most crucial matches of Celtic’s season.
When it comes to the Champions League, Rodgers knows that his preparations have to be as meticulous as ever, and he will be hoping that it is the small details that help propel Celtic into a second successive Champions League campaign. Bedding players into the squad at the earliest opportunity may seem like a small piece of the puzzle, but come July, it could make all the difference.
Celtic’s unexpected 1-0 away defeat to Lincoln Red Imps in this year’s Second qualifying round was put down to a lack of preparation, and although Rodgers had only been in the job for a matter of months, lessons have clearly been learned. There is no margin for error.
In some regards, League success no longer defines Celtic as a club. Fans crave the fabled 10-in-a-row, but even then, that alone is not enough for many – a long overdue domestic treble is high on the list of priorities, but Champions League qualification is the ‘Promised Land’, the pinnacle.
As a club, Celtic under Brendan Rodgers are almost trying to outgrow Scottish football. This is a club that is obsessed with proving its worth on Europe’s biggest club stage, at a time when Governing Body UEFA have been in alleged discussions to make the Champions League a playground for clubs in Europe’s biggest leagues only.
Of course, the money is nice as well, and with Rodgers looking to build on Celtic’s first Champions League outing since the 2013/14 season, he will need all of the financial clout that he can get.
In terms of signing players of the required quality though, Celtic have often found themselves entangled in a vicious cycle of sorts. They need to sign players of a better quality in order to help them get through the minefield of Champions League qualifying, but those players, more often than not, will not sign without the guarantee of Champions League football in the first place. It is a difficult balancing act.
This is where the pull of Brendan Rodgers as a manager comes into affect, and Celtic will be looking to use his lure in order to help bridge the gap between ‘qualifying’ and ‘qualified’ for potential transfer targets. The best players want to be playing with Europe’s elite, and it’s up to Celtic and Rodgers to convince players that they can indeed deliver it to them.
Although there will be no European football for Celtic after Christmas, the team have showed glimpses of promise throughout their Group C matches. Promise is exactly that though, and the team will have to start delivering on that promise with cold hard results if they are to be taken seriously. Celtic’s standard has been set, but it now needs to be raised.
Last night’s daring performance in the 1-1 draw against Manchester City showed exactly what Celtic are capable of in the competition, even if Manchester City did field a ‘weakened’ team. Celtic’s dismal European away form has also been slightly more encouraging, Barcelona hammering aside, with draws picked up against both Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach on the road.
A thrilling 3-3 affair with Manchester City at Celtic Park to open their campaign was followed by a below-par home performance against Monchengladbach, and it is that kind of inconsistency that will continue to cost Celtic in the Champions League. The Glasgow club’s home performance against Barcelona was also positive, and it was almost like the 7-0 thrashing they received in Barcelona was exactly the wake up call that they needed, a welcome back of sorts.
If this season was all about Champions League consolidation for Rodgers and Celtic, then European football after Christmas has to be the goal for next year.
With that famous night against Barcelona in 2012 never too far away from any Celtic fans mind, expectations have to be carefully managed. With the resources that Celtic have, those nights will always be few and far between, but Brendan Rodgers is certainly moving the club in the right direction to witness them yet again, and fans will be hoping sooner rather than later.