By Brian P. Dunleavy
To followers of, say, English football or even MLS (the relatively few, and the justifiably proud), the qualification rounds for the European Champions’ League are a bit of a mystery.
After all, the competition has become the domain of the top clubs from the top leagues—and will continue to evolve even further in that direction over the coming years—leaving the leaders of the lesser leagues to fight for proverbial table scraps. Or, more precisely, a handful of places, and lower seeding, when it comes time for the group stages draw.
The qualifying rounds narrow the pool, of course, and it is where the champions of the leagues in places like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Wales, Ireland and, yes, Scotland, find themselves facing make or break matches against similarly desperate competition.
Scotland’s profile in Europe has declined so sharply in recent years—at least in footballing terms—that Celtic have found themselves in the qualification pool, entering the competition in the second round in each of the past six seasons, with varying degrees of success.
Who can forget the Hoops “victory” over Legia Warsaw in the third round in 2014-15—on a technicality—that put them into a playoff with Slovenian side Maribor, which they lost? That led to Ronny Deila’s “triumphant” (we’re using the term loosely) run in the Europa League that season, which saw the Bhoys reach the knockout stages and, allegedly, provide the Norwegian manager with a platform upon which to build in 2015-16.
How did that work out again?
Celtic’s Irish managers of recent vintage, Neil Lennon and Brendan Rodgers, have experienced notable success on the European stage, with the former reaching the knock out stages in 2012-13 (after that wonderful win over Barcelona at Parkhead—Tony Watt hasn’t had to pay for a meal, or a pint, in Glasgow since) and the latter reaching the group stages, last season, in his first campaign in charge.
This year, Rodgers has made it clear that his ambitions for Celtic are firmly focused on European competition. He wants—no, expects—the Hoops to advance beyond the group stages. How far depends upon whether that competition is called “Champions” or “Europa.”
However, to do that, he must successfully navigate through the qualifiers—and therein lies the rub. Rangers recently demonstrated how difficult these matches against supposed “minnows” can be, and the Hoops (a much different side than their crosstown neighbors, obviously) face a unique challenge in Linfield, given the, uh, demographics of the two clubs’ supporters and that they will play the first leg, in Belfast, without a traveling support because of “security concerns.”
Rodgers’ side is still expected to win, and win handily, and probably will, but while his squad is coming off a season in which it went undefeated in domestic competition, the players remain largely untested in Europe. Captain Scott Brown has seen it all, but after that the first team, as it currently stands, is inexperienced. Rodgers has not brought in any “brand-name” players thus far during the summer transfer window and has shown no interest in doing so.
Making things more complex, bigger clubs in England and elsewhere are reportedly nipping at the heels of squad stalwarts Moussa Dembele (who is likely to leave in August, once the qualifiers are over), Kieran Tierney (who probably isn’t going anywhere—at least not yet) and Stuart Armstrong. And central defender Dedryck Boyata will miss all of the qualifiers due to injury, compromising a position in which Celtic already lacks depth.
It was Rodgers who worked wonders without making major changes heading into last season, though, thus earning him the accolades of supporters. Should he achieve his stated goals in Europe this term, he’ll maintain his place in the pantheon of Celtic managers. But should he not…
And to think it all starts with a “little” club from Belfast.