By Brian P. Dunleavy
Last season, there was almost a feel-good factor to Celtic’s Champions’ League foray—specifically, their group stages matches against Borussia Monchengladbach.
Known the world over, thanks to signs outside spelling-challenged pubs in Glasgow and elsewhere as “That German Team.”
And full credit to Monchengladbach, the club and its supporters embraced the role, and had fun with it themselves.
Fast forward one year, and that good feeling seems nothing but a pleasant memory. Hoops supporters are no longer “just happy to be there”—meaning: the Champions’ League—they want to advance. And, Tuesday’s Celtic Park tie against Bayern Munich (no spelling problems there) was supposed to be the Bhoys’ stepping stone to the knockout stages. Win, and they had a good chance of being “in,” and the knockout stages of the competition are arguably (not really) this generation’s Lisbon.
Except Celtic didn’t win. In fact, for a huge chunk of the match, they looked a far inferior side against a Bayern XI missing many of its stars. They were dominated in the center of the park, and were thus unable to make serious moves going forward.
Scott Sinclair, so dominant against Scottish competition, was invisible. To be fair, he never saw the ball. Nir Bitton and Dedryck Boyata were exposed at the back on both Bayern goals. Stuart Armstrong missed a sitter in the first half; a goal there might have changed the course of the match. Moussa Dembele didn’t make his mark—with, reportedly, scouts from 17 EPL clubs there to watch him (oh, and Kieran Tierney, who seems to be at Parkhead to stay, after just signing a six-year deal).
The 2-1 scoreline flattered Celtic, and this was the second time Bayern was coming into a match with the “beatable” label. In Munich, they were coming off a run of poor results, and had just parted company with their manager. In Glasgow, no Robert Lewandowski; no Thomas Muller.
Yet, for Bayern, really, no problem.
Big picture: This is just the second year of Brendan Rodgers’ remake of the club in his image. And there’s no shame in third place in a group that includes Bayern and PSG. Third place would be good enough for a spot in the Europa League—arguably a more reasonable competition for a club with Celtic’s budget.
Except: Budget, be-damned. This is Glasgow Celtic. A big club, with a global following (more of a tribe, really). On brand name alone, they belong on the biggest European stage.
However, that is not reality—and we know it.
Celtic still have their domestic dominance, of course, and nothing highlights their sway over the Scottish game better than what’s happening at Ibrox. The Rangers board made a mistake in hiring Pedro Caixinha, and it cost them a place in the Europa League, the 2017 League Cup and, most likely, the Premiership title.
Celtic’s board arguably made a similar mistake with Ronny Deila three years ago—and the club still won three trophies during the Norwegian’s two seasons in charge.
Still, next season could be a make or break one for Rodgers and Celtic in Europe.
After all, nobody wants to be known as “That Scottish Team.” Least of all Celtic.