Even as Celtic’s players and staff celebrated on the Hampden Park pitch after completing a domestic treble with victory over Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup final, attention turned to next season.
It had been an unforgettable campaign for Brendan Rodgers’ side. Yet there was one blot on the Bhoys’ copybook: Europe. Drawn in a tough Champions League group with Manchester City, Barcelona and Borussia Monchengladbach, Celtic finished bottom of the pile with three points – obtained from three draws.
Celtic have not made it beyond the Champions League first round since 2013. On that occasion they escaped as runners-up from a group comprised of Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow. Juventus were in wait in the round of 16 and breezed past Celtic 5-0 on aggregate.
So does a Scottish treble count for much when Celtic continually fail to make progress in European football? We asked our friends at Football Whispers the question.
The 2016/17 campaign was historic. Celtic went unbeaten in the Scottish Premiership, the first team to do so since 1899, setting the club’s best points tally (106), securing the most wins (34) and scoring the most goals (106) along the way.
Former Liverpool boss Rodgers turned Ronny Deila’s lacklustre side into an entertaining and dynamic team packed with pace, flair and a varied goal threat.
With Manchester City loanee Patrick Roberts and the revitalised Scott Sinclair flanking AC Milan transfer target Moussa Dembele, the Bhoys were an attacking force playing entertaining and effective football.
But in Europe it was a different story. Trounced 7-0 at Barcelona in their opening group match, Rodgers’ side were put firmly in their place. Barca, even in their current state of flux, are still a formidable opponent and Celtic’s ambition flying out to Catalonia would have been to return to Glasgow heads held high.
But Luis Enrique’s side took Celtic apart, inflicting the Bhoys’ heaviest European defeat. Speaking afterwards, the always upbeat Rodgers claimed his side could be proud despite the shellacking.
“There can be no embarrassment because they do that to much better teams than ourselves,” he said at full time. “Tonight is one of those tough nights that you take at this level. Of course it’s never nice professionally.”
The Ulsterman continued: “For our players, it’s going to be a brilliant learning season in the Champions League. I don’t think they were spooked by the occasion, I thought they were confident.”
It proved to be learning curve for both players and management. Barcelona only triumphed 2-0 at Celtic Park and that came after an encouraging home draw against Pep Guardiola’s expensively-assembled Manchester City outfit.
But owing to Scotland’s lowly UEFA coefficient the country’s Champions League representative will always be up against it – if, indeed, they even make it through the qualifying rounds of the competition. In a league where there is a lack of competition for Celtic thanks to Rangers’ demise, it is a vicious circle.
While the Gers are unable to mount a serious title challenge the Premiership title is Celtic’s to lose. Despite the best efforts of Derek McInnes’ Aberdeen, there was no race for the championship last season as the Hoops finished a massive 30 points clear of the second-placed side.
A lack of progress in Europe hinders Celtic’s ability to retain their best players. Dembele, off the back of 32 goals in just 37 starts, looks set to be the next player to leave Celtic Park even if reported interest from Milan doesn’t materialise this summer – it is a matter of when rather than if.
The promise of developing under Rodgers’ tutelage for a further season will only be enough to persuade the talented Frenchman to remain north of the border for another 12 months before he gets the desire to test himself against stronger opponents in bigger competitions – all while enjoying a pay increase.
It was the same for Victor Wanyama and Liverpool transfer target Virgil van Dijk when they joined Southampton in 2013 and 2015 respectively. There was nothing to keep them at Celtic. The Bhoys, naturally, could not compete financially with the might of the Saints but the lure of Champions League football was not enough to retain either player. That is a worrying trend and one where there is little to suggest it can be bucked.
Furthermore, while there is no genuine competition for Celtic their achievements will always have a caveat next to them – chiefly for rival supporters. The Hoops, therefore, are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Their domestic achievements will never command complete respect and they are so hamstrung in Europe that they cannot hope to mix it with the competition’s elite.
Perhaps, then, it is time to focus on a more realistic goal. Namely, becoming the first Scottish side to win ten league titles in a row, trampling over Rangers’ nine in the process. Currently on six after waltzing to the title last season, Celtic are closing in on securing the ultimate bragging right.
It would be a more impressive achievement than a domestic treble and, more importantly, far more significant historically than making getting out their group in the Champions League.