The calm before the storm
International week is something of a pain for the average football fan as it denies them their weekly fix of club football. There was a time when fans followed the international team with the same vigour and passion as they did their club but it recent years that has waned. For Celtic fans, experiencing elements of the Scottish support booing their players on international duty turned many off following the national team. There is also the recurring possibility of key players picking up injuries playing for their respective countries. In the great club or country debate I’d say a big majority of supporters are now more interested in their club. This month sees Celtic involved in a hectic schedule of matches which will stretch the squad and give us a clear impression of the progress we have made since last season. It’s to be hoped all our international players return fit and well.
September will be a big month in which Celtic will compete in three competitions. First up is a game against the SPFL newcomers Rangers and however you perceive the club from Govan there is no doubting the fact that every Celtic fan will want this game won and won well. There is no point thinking just yet about Barcelona the following week, the supporters will want the team firing on all cylinders for this match. We will doubtless experience again the unedifying spectacle of 7000 away fans visiting Celtic Park for this game bringing with them the dreary, poisonous chanting which seems to form such a large part of their repertoire. The simple remedy for that is for Celtic Supporters to drown them out and for the team to beat their side comprehensively on the park. I’m hopeful on both counts but I’m never blasé or overconfident about any game. Football can throw up some odd results and a poor decision or a red card can change a game. The way Celtic are playing at the moment makes me quietly confident though and I have no doubt 53,000 Celtic fans at the game will make an ear splitting racket as they back the team.
The following week we travel to the Camp Nou and you don’t need to cast your mind back far to recall our games there. Celtic have played Barcelona on 5 previous occasions in the Camp Nou and lost 3 times. (0-1, 1-2 & 1-6) A 1-1 draw in 2004-05 and a 0-0 in 2003-04 are our best results and both were gained by showing stubborn determination in the face of waves of Barca attacks. That 6-1 drubbing was a sobering experience. Barcelona actually led 6-0 with 20 minutes remaining and what was a bad result could have been even more humiliating. The gulf between teams like Barcelona and Celtic is huge in financial and sporting terms. They can trawl the world for the very best players while Celtic must try to build a team using much more moderate resources.
The gulf between the super-rich elite and the rest of European football has never been so large. This manifests itself in teams paying huge amounts for players. Manchester United recently bought Paul Pogba for more than Celtic’s entire yearly turnover. The playing field has been tilted in favour of the rich and some argue the latter stages of the Champions League throws up the same faces every year. We have seen teams such as our old foes Malmo battered 8-0 in the Bernabeu, Basel destroyed 7-0 in Munich and Olympiacos lose by 7 in Turin. Celtic is a young side and clearly a work in progress who will need to be pragmatic about how they approach the games in the Champions League this year. No one expects us to escape from a group which contains 3 very gifted sides. Brendan Rodgers will do his homework and have a game plan in mind for each of the ties but most supporters are wise enough to recognise the size of the task. If we can come out of the group with our heads held high and perhaps sneak a third place, most would be happy. It will take a monumental effort though and I’d be happy if our young team gave the big guns a run for their money.
Home games at Celtic Park showcase not only the team but the fantastic support Celtic get for the European games under the lights. One of the greatest of recent years was the stunning defeat of Barcelona in 2012. Paul Heyward of the Telegraph wrote one of the best articles on this game and said…
‘’A club set up to feed the poor in Glasgow’s East End took a bite out of the rich in a front of a home tribe so passionate that even Barcelona's Clasico veterans were taken aback. “No words to describe the atmosphere at Celtic Park,” wrote Gerard Piqué, who knows so well the cauldron of Real Madrid v Barcelona. “The stadium is a marvel – the fans, the people, how they support their team,” Xavi added. “It’s an example for every team.” “The stadium was spectacular,” said Tito Vilanova, the Barcelona coach. “I have been lucky in my career to have been to many grounds, but I have never seen anything like it. This was their 125th birthday and I wish them many more years.”
That passion and love the Celtic supporters have for their team is perhaps the great intangible of European ties at Celtic Park. There is no doubt that it drives Celtic on to a higher plane but Rodgers will know that in recent years Milan, Juventus and Inter have all scored 3 goals at Celtic Park. The support is vital but so too is a cogent game plan carried out by competent, well drilled players. Yet still we dream, still we hope that when Manchester City, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Barcelona come calling that chemistry we see so often between Celtic and their supporters on European nights at Celtic Park will bring that magic ingredient to bear on proceedings. Paul Heyward described that ingredient so well in 2012 when he said…
‘Somewhere between madness and love, this fanaticism did for Barcelona on a night when the Celtic team and their disciples were indivisible. Money can’t buy you that.’
Getting to the Group stage of the Champions League and winning the SPFL are the main aims each season for Celtic. The Champions League offers the chance to joust with the giants of modern football and gives the fans a real sense of excitement. It sets the club up financially and supports the wider Scottish game. We will need to raise our game to have any chance in the group we find ourselves in but in football you never know. Perhaps somewhere between madness and love we’ll spring the odd surprise.
Nothing would please me more.