Graham Ruthven: Celtic can still make the most of a bad situation in the Europa League

Our Scottish football expert Graham Ruthven looks at Celtic’s Champions League woes and feels they can still salvage their European season…


£10 million, £20 million, £35 million… nobody seems sure how much money Celtic have missed out on by not qualifying for the Champions League this season, but one thing’s for certain, it’s a lot.

Buoyed by their qualification for the competition’s group stages in each of the past two seasons, the Glasgow club has never been more profitable. That will change when Celtic’s next financial results are released.

Last week’s crushing defeat to AEK Athens was about more than just money, though. The Bhoys are a club defined by their European exploits. Tributes to the fabled Lisbon Lions stand around Celtic Park, with the East End stadium at its best on European nights.

Anyone who fails to meet this continental benchmark is deemed unfit to wear the hoops, as Ronny Deila found out when he was effectively forced out following two seasons of Europa League football.

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But that’s where Brendan Rodgers, the club’s best manager since Martin O’Neill, finds himself after a disastrous Champions League qualification campaign this summer. It is undoubtedly a black mark on the Northern Irishman’s Celtic record regardless of the numerous other factors that led to this failure.

Yet, once the immediate disappointment subsides, the Europa League could provide Celtic with a silver lining.

At Champions League level, Celtic are always punching above their weight. Just making it to the group stage is an achievement in itself, with the Hoops often handed heavy defeats by the European elite once they get there. The Europa League, however, is a different proposition altogether.

Celtic’s greatest modern triumph was in making it to the final of the UEFA Cup back in 2003. It’s still used as a reference point for the club, with all in Scottish football remembering when, according to some estimates, 80,000 Celtic fans travelled to Seville for the game.

Now, inadvertently, Rodgers’ side have a shot at a similar sort of run.

Some might not want to accept it, but the Europa League is a more suitable level for Celtic.

This isn’t to say that they shouldn’t strive for better, that the Champions League shouldn’t be the aim every season, but now that they are in the Europa League, the Hoops might as well make the best of the situation.

Of course, there’s still a qualification tie to be played before Celtic even enter the draw for the group stage, with Rodgers and his players travelling to Lithuania to take on FK Suduva this week.

That tie should be little more than a formality, though, and once the group stage draw is made the Hoops can start plotting a route deep into the competition.

That sort of dreaming is something fans are robbed of in the Champions League, where merely avoiding a thrashing is often as ambitious as teams like Celtic can get.

The Europa League is a better standard of competition than it is generally given credit for. It’s true that it is a tournament painted in broad strokes, with the variance in quality rather vast.

But the knockout rounds always make for compelling viewing, as demonstrated by the strength of the teams recently seen.

Last season, for instance, Celtic, who dropped out of the Champions League and into the second-tier tournament, were comprehensively eliminated at the first knockout stage by a strong Zenit St Petersburg side.

The final was contested between Atletico Madrid and Marseille, two teams boasting strong European pedigree, with Arsenal going out in the semi-finals.

There can be no room for arrogance.

Celtic might have come to think of themselves as a Champions League club, but they have no given right to be at that level.

This season must be used to raise the level of everyone and everything at the club to ensure next season’s qualification campaign is a success, and there is no better way to do that than making a run in the Europa League.

The winners receive automatic entry to the Champions League, after all.

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