Scotland witnessed another European failure by one of its club teams as Celtic suffered a painful 3-0 defeat to Zenit St. Petersburg knocking them out of the Europa League at the first hurdle. The Scottish champions responded domestically by beating Aberdeen, who have finished 2nd three years running, for the 10th time in a row. Both results highlight the fact that despite domestically dominating, Celtic have not been able to transition this form into Europe. So, why is this the case?
Since Brendan Rodgers’ took over, the Glasgow side have smashed numerous records. Last season, they racked up a record 106 points on their way to securing a domestic treble, which they look likely to achieve again this year. The team finished the season undefeated, becoming the first Scottish side to achieve this feat since Rangers in the 1898-99 season, when there were just eighteen matches in a season.
As mentioned above, they have outclassed Aberdeen, as well as brushing aside rivals Rangers with two 5-1 victories, one of which was ‘the Gers’ heaviest defeat at Ibrox since 1915. However, in Europe it has been a different story and ‘the Hoops’ have suffered some embarrassing losses leading to serious questions about the strength of Scottish football.
In Rodgers’ first game in charge, Celtic suffered what some have classed as their worst defeat in history, losing 1-0 to part-time Lincoln Red Imps of Gibraltar in a Champions League qualifier. As well as this major shock Celtic have struggled mightily against world class opposition, Barcelona handing them their biggest European defeat in a 7-0 trouncing last season.
While losing to the likes of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Paris St Germain is understandable, such heavy losses, as well as defeats by lesser teams like Zenit and Borussia Monchengladbach, are more concerning. Such results show Celtic, and the quality of Scottish football has regressed since Martin O’Neill and Walter Smith were leading the Old Firm to European finals in 2004 and 2008 respectively. What Celtic lack now in comparison to the finalists of 2004, a side that contained the likes of Henrik Larsson and Stiliyan Petrov, is a world class talent and a solid defence. Without either, progress against Europe’s elite is essentially impossible.
Glimmers of hope have been present, in the 3-3 draw away to Manchester City in last season’s group stage, and this year in the impressive 3-0 away win to Anderlecht alongside the 1-0 triumph over Zenit in the first leg of the Europa League tie. These results suggest that if Celtic had more consistent exposure to quality opposition they could adjust to the bigger stage and be more competitive. However, the standard of football they encounter at home has left them woefully underprepared in Europe making famous results, like the 2-1 victory over Barcelona in 2012, much more difficult to achieve.
Other Scottish sides have not even come close to qualifying for the knockout stages of European competition in recent years. At the start of this season alone, Rangers were dumped out by Progrès Niederkorn, the fourth best team in Luxembourg, Aberdeen fell at the third round to Apollon Limassol of Cyprus and St Johnstone lost to Trakai, of Lithuania. There have been other embarrassing losses to teams in leagues not far different in quality to Scotland, such as Hibs’ 7-0 drubbing at the hands of Swedish Malmö in 2013.
While there are reasonable excuses, in terms of finances and population size, for not being able to compete regularly with leagues such as the English Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga, it is very worrying for the state of Scottish football that clubs struggle to compete with teams from the likes of Luxembourg, Cyprus and Lithuania.
While Scottish football is dominated by Celtic, which has been the case for the last six seasons, the lack of serious competition they face hinders their ability to perform in Europe. To make Celtic, and the rest of Scottish football, more competitive in European competition it would be a serious benefit to have a more closely fought league. The return of Rangers and Hibernian to the top flight, along with the continued good form of Aberdeen, should help with this, at least to some extent.
Image courtesy of Jon Candy