The question comes up over and over again; the media is asking it. We’re all asking it. There must be people at the club asking it. After Christmas we may well get our answer; just how good are Celtic at the moment? How good are we capable of being?
Games against Bayern and PSG were never going to answer that question; with all respect to other clubs around Europe, these guys are in a handful of teams at the very, very top. They will beat most anyone, most of the time.
They offer us no opportunity to properly evaluate our position, because they are light years in front of us.
But I’ve argued here on this site that this isn’t true for clubs in the bracket just below that of the super-clubs. Even the likes of Milan would offer us a chance to see what we’re got, instead of being one that fills you with a kind of fascinated dread.
The excellent performance we put in at home against Munich was food for thought in that regard.
We can match most teams at Celtic Park, and the storming performance in Belgium has offered us tantalising glimpses of how good we might be. We still don’t know. The English hacks who slated us for the performance in Paris are practically hiding under the bed in case their own teams draw the world’s most expensively assembled club. We’ll see how good their own multi-million pound teams are against them once that happens.
Look, we’re not an “average” team, no matter what some people might say or perhaps even think. No team that goes 67 domestic games unbeaten – a run which takes in four trophies – can rightly or reasonably be called “average.”
We don’t have “average” players either; Moussa is one of Europe’s most watched players, and it’s widely acknowledged that Kieran could play anywhere. Scott Brown is captain of his country, then there’s Leigh, James Forrest, Stuart Armstrong, Tom Rogic …
I could go on, you get the point. These are international players, and all would fetch decent transfer fees. There’s no doubt that we’re a right good side.
Which brings us to Brendan, a top drawer manager who could pretty much take his pick of the top jobs in England, where he remains highly rated in spite of a lot of the nonsense talked on hack stations like TalkSport.
Our record in Scotland is no accident; we’ve got the fundamentals right when it comes to the team, and the rewards are starting to tumble in. The club is in a good place right across the boards, but we want to be bigger, we want to be more, we want to test ourselves to the limits and PSG is not the limit and it never was. Teams like that, filled to the rafters with mega-stars, are the exception in Europe football, not the norm.
We really don’t have anything to fear from any of the teams in the competition; on the right day we will be a match for them. The real elite teams are those which will make the quarter finals of the Champions League, because they do every year.
The Europa League knockout stages will be a good testing ground – a proving ground – for the team as it stands right now.
But nobody can say progress hasn’t already been made. The sensational home performance against Astana was the proof of what a difference even twelve months had made and whilst some of the hacks will point to the away display, where we conceded four goals, they will have to overlook the fact that we also scored three, and that after an excellent away match against Rosenborg – which, by the way, half of the hacks expected us to lose – and Anderlecht after that.
A good performance at home tomorrow night should close out the Group with our target reached; six points from the games against the Belgians. We also came very close, painfully close, to grabbing a point against Bayern. We’ve grown as a team.
Which is why we’re all tantalised by the possibilities here, of what might be just around the corner if, as we expect, we make it through tomorrow night and go into that Europa League knockout draw. There will be big clubs in there with us, but none that you would necessarily be over worried about; instead any tie would be looked forward to with anticipation rather than the trepidation with which we approached the matches against the French.
I’ve looked at the Group tables; there is still so much uncertainty over who will qualify and be in the draw. We won’t be seeded, so that eliminates some doubt, but knowing that doesn’t yet bring clarity to the proceedings either.
Some of the non-seeded teams are strong, whilst some of those which are seeded look eminently beatable … take the team that wins Group G in the Europa League. Whoever that is will be a seeded team; it’s a two horse race between Steaua Bucharest and Viktoria Plzen. We’d settle for either of those, and Group F is a three-way race between FC Sherriff, Lokomotiv Moscow and FC Copenhagen. Give us one of them and we’ll be happy.
Yet I don’t think we’d be afraid if we got one of Group E’s top two of Lyon or Atalanta either; a trip to Italy would actually be very nice. They are a solidly left-wing club, anti-fascist, with good relationships with other teams like ours around Europe. It would be a perfectly friendly atmosphere and two excellent football matches.
AC Milan and Arsenal would be different prospects, but neither would fill me with dread. Those are the teams who we could draw and who are in the Europa right now. The teams who are dropping down from the Champions League … well I don’t necessarily fear any of those either, with a trip to Dortmund actually on the wish-list for most of our fans.
But the objective here isn’t to go on a jolly, of course. It’s serious business.
Whichever draw we get, it’s not a holiday we’re after here but progress in the tournament.
We want to do well here, to show what we’re about. I don’t think we’ll reach the final; a quarter final would be an awesome result, and something to build on next year. If we got to the semis then I would honestly be gutted if we didn’t manage to go that extra mile, but it would represent an undeniable leap forward.
This is such an exciting time to be a Celtic fan, with so much to look forward to.
It’s all just a constant stream of positivity at the moment. Tomorrow night, under the floodlights, this team of ours will take a giant stride towards our future. If we’re in that draw for the Europa League I think all of us can agree that we want a test, but would be happy with a relatively straightforward tie.
This is what we’ve been waiting for.
It can’t come quick enough.