Celtic stand on the verge of something special this week. A win against Benfica on Tuesday will put them through to the knockout stages of the Champions League with a game to spare. Even a score draw will do it as long as Spartak Moscow don’t beat Barcelona. They’re not there yet, of course, and both the remaining games will be extremely tough. But whatever happens now, the Hoops have exceeded expectations, and in a season that was supposed to be ‘Armageddon’ for Scottish football.
That was the term used by SFA chief Stuart Regan in the summer as he attempted to bully Scotland’s clubs into fast-tracking the Rangers newco up through the leagues. The apocalyptic language was picked up with great glee by the media but the clubs stood firm and so far the Doomsday Scenario just hasn’t happened. Numerous clubs will go the wall within months they said. Apart from a scare for Hearts this week, not a single club has shown signs of folding. The SPL will descend into farce and be over by Christmas, they continued. As we approach December, Celtic hold the slenderest of leads over a handful of chasing clubs in a league that has seen genuine competition and no little entertainment. The doom-mongers predicted that even Celtic would struggle without their ancient rivalry to spur them on and fuel their coffers. As for European success, the very idea was met with derision.
And yet here we are. Celtic have a golden opportunity to qualify from one of the hardest qualifying groups in the Champions League. Far from Armageddon, Celtic are thriving and maybe it’s Rangers’ very absence from the picture that has been the catalyst for that success. The perceived wisdom was that without regular games against their old enemy, Celtic’s performance level would be dragged down and it wouldn’t be possible to raise their game for Europe. In fact, raising the game has become something of a speciality, with the team performing far better on the European stage than in domestic competition.
The absence of Rangers has allowed manager Neil Lennon to rotate his squad, ensuring his players are fresh for Champions League games. The old SPL environment was a pressure-cooker: a two-horse-race where two bad results in a row could potentially ruin a season. Not exactly conducive to preparing players properly for European games. What the manager has now is a little breathing space. That’s not a slight to the other SPL clubs who have shown they’re not as far behind as many thought, but the simple facts are that their budgets, infrastructures and squads are not on the same level. Celtic can drop a few points along the way and still be clear favourites for the title.
Of course you can’t wrap players in cotton wool, and random injuries have still seen depleted Celtic sides in Champions League games – they were without Brown, Hooper, Izaguirre and Forrest when they beat Barcelona after all. But squad rotation does mean two things. First, you can ensure key players are at peak match fitness barring unforeseen injuries. Second, since the full squad is being used regularly, fringe men have played enough first-team football not to look out of place should they be needed on a European night.
The Celts can also fully focus on Europe without the distraction of Old Firm games. It’s a big distraction; the next Rangers game is a constant cloud on the horizon. With at least four meetings a season, the dust has barely settled on the last game when the next one comes around. For a fixture so emotionally charged and so vital to a league campaign, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Who could forget that crazy season two years ago – Neil Lennon’s first term in charge – when the Old Firm met six times, four of them in rapid succession? The result was carnage: red cards, feuds, touchline spats and global bad publicity.
Much as Celtic fans eagerly anticipate Rangers games, it’s no bad thing to have a break from them. It allows the players to save their energy, physical and emotional, for the Champions League. The psychological implications of losing against Rangers can be grave as well, putting a downer on players and fans alike for weeks after the event. This can’t help preparations for European matches. In short, it’s easy to get bogged down in Old Firm games and right now Celtic have bigger fish to fry.
There’s money to think about as well. With Celtic being Scotland’s sole representatives in the group stages (unexpected participation in the qualifiers was too much too soon for Motherwell), they scoop the whole pot of TV money. A nice bonus, but not really what the fans are excited about. After all, Celtic have just beaten Barcelona and if they can do the same to Benfica they’ll progress to the knockout stages on their first Champions League adventure for four years. So it’s off to Lisbon’s Stadium of Light, the scene of Celtic’s greatest ever achievement, winning the European Cup in 1967. Those heady days may be a long way off but, in the current climate, qualification would be another mighty achievement if the bhoys can pull it off. Maybe Rangers’ absence has helped them along the way. Armageddon Mr Regan? If this is the end of the world as we know it, then Celtic feel fine.