By Brian P. Dunleavy
Celtic and manager Brendan Rodgers achieved one of their stated goals for the season on Tuesday when they clinched European football after Christmas with a pragmatic 1-0 loss to Anderlecht, which needed to win by three or more goals to move on, at Celtic Park.
No, the Europa League is not the Champions’ League, and a win in the tournament will not recall the Lisbon triumph for the Hoops in 1967, but participation in the round of 32 knockout stages—and beyond?—can still bring some of the sport’s bold-faced names to Celtic Park and give Rodgers’ team something other than domestic dominance on which to hang their collective hat. Winger James Forrest, whose star has shown this season on the European stage and in cup competitions, is excited at the prospect.
“I don’t think anybody has really thought about the Europa League,” Forrest told the press recently. “At the start of the season the goal was to get into the Champions’ League and we wanted to be in Europe after Christmas.”
Forrest, who was playing for Celtic’s U11s when the Hoops last made a European cup final—in 2003 under Martin O’Neill, added that the squad plans to attack the second-tier competition “game by game.” And, cliché though it may be, they will have to.
Last week, we cited Sporting Intelligence’s 2017 Global Sports Salaries Survey (GSSS) in highlighting the wage gulf between Celtic and the rest of the Premiership and, in turn, the chasm in salaries between Europe’s elite and the Glasgow club.
That chasm remains, even at the Europa League level. Yes, most of the A-Listers are in the Champions’ League. However, this season’s Europa League features the likes of AC Milan, Atalanta, Olympique Lyonnais, Arsenal, Olympique de Marseille, Koln, Lazio, OGC Nice and Real Sociedad. In addition, Atletico de Madrid and Napoli are among those, like Celtic, set to drop down to the second-tier competition from the Champions’ League proper.
At £3.14 million, Milan’s average player wages are four times those of the Hoops, according to the GSSS, while Lyon’s, Lazio’s and Sociedad’s are nearly double (£1.3 million to £1.5 million range). At £4.04 million, Arsenal’s average wages are more than five times those of Celtic (and, yet, Arsene Wenger still can’t get the Gunners into the top four), while Marseille pay, on average, £1.77 million per player to chase down PSG. The wages paid by Atalanta, Koln and Nice are comparable to (though still higher than) the average salary at Celtic (£735,040).
All of which means the Hoops still face an uphill climb if they hope to repeat the feat of O’Neill’s side, which made the then-UEFA Cup final in Porto 14 years ago. Now, as then, the home advantage at Celtic Park is the great equalizer, of course, as is the team spirit the Hoops squad seems to always display on European nights.
Indeed, Celtic’s last foray into the Europa League knockout round landed them a two-legged tie against Inter Milan (average player salary £2.64 million per the GSSS), in 2014-15. The tie, a rematch, if you will, of the 1967 European Cup Final (though much has changed since), ended with the Italians winning 4-3 on aggregate.
Which, all in all, wasn’t all bad, all things considered. Remember: That was Year One of Ronny Deila’s ill-fated two-year reign, an experiment gone awry to say the least.
Rodgers men can realistically expect to improve on that—and arguably Celtic supporters should expect them to: because, what’s a few pounds when glory is at stake?
We know: Everything.