It’s fair to say that Celtic’s UEFA Champions League group stage tilt didn’t get off to the best of starts. Supporters’ hopes were high when Paris Saint-Germain visited Glasgow on the opening night of the competition, but the bitter realities of the challenge facing the Hoops at this level were laid bare with devastating effect.
After that 5-0 defeat, Brendan Rodgers’ side may be forgiven for being a little hesitant going into the rest of their Group B fixtures, but there’s every reason to believe they can actually put it all behind them on matchday two against Anderlecht and pick up their first away win in the group stages of a European competition since 2012.
First of all, it’s important to put the challenge Celtic face next week in Belgium into context. Since defeating Spartak Moscow in Russia five years ago, Celtic have played 14 group stage matches away from home in the Europa League and Champions League without winning.
While they have picked up creditable draws against the likes of Manchester City and Fenerbahce along the way, it’s the general consensus that the Hoops have it in them to really struggle more often than not when travelling on the continent.
In the past, the Hoops have relied heavily on their home form to progress in the competition. In the Gordon Strachan years they qualified for the last 16 in two successive seasons by winning all three matches at Celtic Park and losing all of their away fixtures.
However, times have changed, and the place they call Paradise is no longer the fortress it once was when European giants come calling, making it all the more important to pick up points on the road.
With a positive result in Belgium required then, it’s fortunate for the Bhoys that Anderlecht are having such a poor start to their season that it could be considered a once-in-a-generation event.
The Belgian champions are experiencing their worst start to a season in 19 years and it’s all culminated in the departure of manager Rene Weiler this week. A 2-2 draw with mid-table strugglers KV Kortrijk at the weekend was the last straw and the hierarchy at the club have chosen to make their decision in advance of next week’s massive European tie.
Currently sitting in ninth place in First Division A, they’ve amassed just nine points from their opening seven fixtures, already in danger of being cut adrift completely from the title race.
A 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Bayern Munich in Europe has hardly helped matters and although they’ll see the tie with Celtic as winnable, they aren’t exactly a team that anyone can have any confidence in right now.
In contrast, the Scottish champions are unbeaten in 55 matches in domestic competition. The standard of the Belgian top-flight may be higher, but Rodgers’ side are as unstoppable as ever and that breeds an undeniable confidence.
There is the chance that with the departure of Weiler they get the classic bounce you sometimes see when a managerial era comes to an end, but put simply, the circumstances couldn’t be more ripe for the Hoops to pick up a massive result.
Against PSG, there was a real hesitancy to Celtic’s performance. While understandable, it was as if they didn’t ever truly believe they could compete at this level. There was too much respect. Going into the Anderlecht clash with a similar outlook will likely lead to disaster.
The suggestion is not that the Hoops travel to Belgium with a swashbuckling attacking naivety, far from it, but it’s time for Brendan Rodgers’ side to back themselves in Europe and assert themselves in matches with a swagger, an aggression and a ruthless streak that fans have become accustomed to in domestic matches.
Based on the two teams’ form so far this season, it’s clear Celtic have it in themselves to bring the game to Anderlecht and add to the home side’s problems in a massive way. A win will put European football after Christmas to within touching distance. There’s never been a better time to face them either.
It would be inaccurate to say Celtic’s entire European ambitions this season lie in next week’s fixture, but it’ll certainly play a big part and they must travel looking for all three points in a month that the Belgians are there for the taking.