After winning the Premiership at a canter last term, remaining unbeaten for the entire season, it’s clear that Celtic’s final frontier lies in Europe.
It’s been more than 50 years since the Lisbon Lions lifted the European Cup in the Portuguese capital in 1967. Coming from behind against Helenio Herrera’s Inter Milan – the most defensively solid team of the era – with a team of players exclusively from Glasgow and its surrounding environs was an epic achievement, and one which will never be matched. But in another way, just getting out of the group in this season’s competition would be a comparable achievement, such is the gulf in class between the Scottish giants’ current side and the two big names in the group, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain.
The received wisdom this time around is that the first game is perhaps the biggest game in the group: at home to PSG. That’s because Carlo Ancelotti’s Munich are seen as the strongest team in the group, and the Parisians are seen as the second-placed team. As a result, if Celtic want to qualify, it’ll be the French side they have to beat.
In fact, it might just be the other way around.
Quite apart from the fact that PSG have spent the summer putting together arguably the most impressive attacking trio in world football at the moment, they are also a team set up perfectly to take apart teams like Celtic. Ligue 1 is filled with teams who are technically quite good, but who simply aren’t at the level of Neymar, Mbappe and co. The Hoops are also a team who enjoy possession under Brendan Rodgers, and who just aren’t used to defending in numbers any more.
It’s a similar story when it comes to Bayern Munich. But after the start to the season that PSG have had, it no longer seems over the top to proclaim them as the most dangerous team in the group. At the weekend, Munich lost their first game of the season away to Hoffenheim, whilst the Parisians are yet to lose. In fact, the aggregate score so far in their five league games is 18-3. They are on rare form and set up perfectly to take top spot in the group.
That might not be great news for Celtic, but it could turn out to be something of a blessing in disguise.
Having no clear top team in the group makes things more difficult. For Celtic, their job has always seemed pretty clear. They need to make sure they beat Anderlecht, and win the home game against the second team – which everyone thought was PSG.
By now, though, perhaps it’s Bayern Munich who should provide Celtic with their pressure game when the Germans come to Celtic Park. That would mean being able to ease their way into the Champions League as the home game against Munich doesn’t come until Halloween.
This time last year, Brendan Rodgers’ first taste of Champions League football as Celtic manager came in a chastening defeat at the Camp Nou. This time, another big defeat to PSG would look like a group-destroying defeat if Bayern were to be considered out of reach.
In reality, though, perhaps the best thing that can happen to Celtic in any case is to finish third. After last season’s good performances in the group stage, they ended up bottom and out of Europe before Christmas. Getting European football in the spring is clearly the next step, but perhaps that step should be in the Europa League, a competition in which Celtic could certainly aim to get past the first knockout round, as even coming second in the Champions League group would surely mean meeting another big name in the next round.
If the aim is to see Celtic back amongst the European elite, playing the best teams in Europe like Bayern and Barcelona, then fair enough – that’s what playing in Europe is all about. But there should be a longer-term aim than that.
This is a project. Celtic should be looking to gain experience of winning European games after Christmas in the second tier competition before attempting to do the same in the Champions League next season. In the end, it’s all about the experience, and at the moment, this team doesn’t really have it. A good run in Europe – whichever competition it happens to be – would allow them to gain it.
The home game against PSG seemed to be the biggest of the campaign, but their current form means that perhaps Bayern is the big name Celtic should be aiming to unseat. Yet, that might just lower the crosshairs into focusing solely on Anderlecht and making sure that third place is achieved.
And if Celtic want to be participating in the sorts of European nights that Parkhead witnessed in 1967, perhaps the Europa League is the best place to see that in this second season of Brendan Rodgers’ reign.