Celtic’s Dominance In Scotland Bodes Poorly In Europe

The Old Firm derby, arguably the most heated derby in all of Britain, has become little more than a reminder of the arm’s length that Celtic have come to hold Rangers at. The green and white of Glasgow have come to dominate Scotland with a vice-like grip that seems unlikely to loosen anytime soon. 


The latest match between the two was settled by Celtic and may have also settled the fate of the league’s destination. Reduced to ten men, Rangers were combative and spirited, and pushed Celtic close but as so often appears to be the case lately, fell short. 


And so Celtic look as though a twelfth league title in thirteen years will be draped in the colours of Celtic. Domestically, all is rosy. And perhaps that may be the issue for Celtic when it comes to explaining the toothless punch that they have come to carry in Europe for a number of years now. 


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Until Celtic beat Feyenoord 2-1 in a meaningless game this season of the group stages, you’d have to go back to 2017 to find the last time Celtic won a game in the Champions League. In between that, there were a number of seasons when they couldn’t even qualify for the group stages itself. And Celtic Park, that supposed fortress of green noise? The last time Celtic won on home soil in the Champions League was in 2013, against Ajax. Since then, put simply, they’ve barely been good enough to even collect a point. 


It wasn’t always like this. Celtic was once a source of genuine inspiration and awe even for opponents. The 2000s was a time when giants came to Celtic and were hacked down, yielding to the intensity of what that stadium can create. Juventus, AC Milan and Manchester United – teams at the peak of their powers – came and fell. Those glory years briefly fell away but in 2012, Celtic conjured one of the greatest European nights in their illustrious history when a Barcelona team boasting Lionel Messi, Xavi and co came and lost. 


One could say that this is the price of Celtic’s dominance in Scotland. Without any serious competition due to Rangers’ financial woes in the early 2010s, the quality gap between what they faced in Scotland and what they encountered in Europe could not be abridged. Even in the Europa League, every tough assignment became too daunting to overcome. 


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Competition breeds an intensity that carries over across different tournaments. Celtic and Rangers competed for the league in the 2000s and the mentality required to sustain those title run-ins is what allowed Celtic to push teams in Europe.


In essence, for Celtic to begin doing well in Europe, they need Rangers to start competing in Scotland. There are other factors involved. Money is always an assertive influence in determining the destiny of many things in life and football is also a victim of that. While the Premier League has ballooned in size, the Scottish league has suffered. In terms of quality, the Scottish league is on par with England’s lower divisions. 


Other factors exist and some can be pinpointed specifically at Brendan Rodgers’ own lack of pedigree in European football. Whether it was as manager of Liverpool or during his first stint with Celtic, European nights always seemed a step too far for the Irishman. Sometimes, the weight of the occasions seemed beyond his understanding, evidenced most sharply perhaps when he fielded a lightweight team against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu because he wanted to prepare Liverpool for a league game. 


Celtic: Dominant Force in Scotland, Weak on the European Stage


At first glance, tactically, Celtic aren’t prepared for European nights. Rodgers’ stern emphasis on possession football serves well in Scotland where they’re expected to hold most of the ball anyway. But this doesn’t translate into Europe where technically superior teams dominate Celtic and a different way of playing is required. Whether Rodgers can admit it or not, Celtic have been beaten brutally by teams under his watch.


All this poses serious questions for Celtic going into next season. Winning in the league may already be a formality, and anything less than would be deemed a failure. But perhaps Celtic fans might almost reluctantly accept that if there were signs of real progress in Europe. If they somehow made it out of the Champions League group stages or ended up winning the Europa League, would that be a better season than simply winning a league they have grown accustomed to winning every year?


By: Rabbil Sikdar / @rabbilnahar

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Craig Williamson – SNS Group