The Parkhead club defeated Swedish Champions Helsingborgs by an aggregate score of 4-0 to reach the lucrative Group Stages of the Champions League for the first time since 2008/2009, where they will meet Barcelona, Benfica, and Spartak Moscow in Group G.
Losses to Eskisehirspor and Dinamo Moscow, suffered by St. Johnstone and Dundee United respectively, did not come as a surprise to fans in Scotland. Neither did the exits of Hearts and Motherwell last night – although Hearts did themselves and Scotland proud in their narrow 2-1 aggregate loss to Liverpool.
Early exits from Europe have become all too common for Scottish clubs, evidence of the quality deficit between Scottish clubs and their European peers.
It is against this backdrop which Celtic’s success must be surveyed. Their ability to raise their level of performance in Europe – not just in this years’ qualification, but also in the Europe League last season – when wins become regulation in the SPL is a difficult feat to achieve. This will become more pertinent this year as Celtic will likely have the League title secured by Christmas without the sustained challenge of Rangers at the peak of Scotland’s premier division.
Progression for Celtic offers a vast financial reward, which will also filter down to the SPL’s 11 other clubs. Furthermore, Celtic have facilitated a revival of Scottish football’s tarnished image.
Hearts’ showing over the two legs against Liverpool should also garner respect from fans of clubs in England – restoring credibility after the Edinburgh club’s 5-0 loss to Spurs at the same stage of the competition 12 months ago.
Neil Lennon, Celtic’s manager, questioned his own suitability as manager of the club when he found his team 3-0 down at half-time against Kilmarnock last October – a game which ended in a 3-3 draw – and drew criticism when his side lost in last season’s League Cup final to the Ayrshire club and suffered semi-final defeat to Hearts in the Scottish Cup. However, there are always moments of disappointment in a fledgling managerial career.
Lennon has begun to restore Celtic’s standing in Europe – finding consecutive away victories, which is impressive considering the club’s poor away record in Europe– and his determination to progress deep into European competition will not abate.
Lennon’s utopian ambition of winning the Champions League with Celtic received ridicule from those who refused to take the statement with a pinch of salt. However, underlying this bravado is the crucial ingredient to all success: ambition. Considering
the draw, Lennon will be confident that his side is capable of reaching the last 16 or achieving a third place finish and thus entry into the Europa League knock-out round.
Written by Steven Ballantyne