This season sees the return of my lapsed regular feature, Breakfast of Champions, where I take a look at the best of the action from the Champions League week. This task became considerably easier last night when Celtic were papped out of the competition by Malmö.
‘What if we are playing Madrid or Munich the same night I have to write my column?!’ I worried over the last few weeks. Ha! Some chance. Thankfully I can now watch the Champions League with cold, emotionless detachment, and write my piece before settling down to watch Celtic vs. Kairat Almaty in a half open Parkhead at 6pm on Thursday! Much better, right?
Much like all Celtic fans, the games against Malmö came as a massive, agonising kick in the nether regions. Champions League qualification makes the season infinitely more enjoyable, not to mention financially beneficial to the club, even when – like last time we qualified – you get humped five times out of six. The nervous excitement which comes in the build up to the games, and the excitement of the draw were all gone in a flurry of piss-poor defending, but if you’re one of those fans saying, “I cant be arsed with the Europa League,” then maybe you shouldn’t bother going back to Celtic Park again.
To the games, though. There isn’t much you can say to defend losing a last minute away goal at Parkhead and that moment completely changed the complexion of the tie on Tuesday night.
That game though probably contained one of the worst decisions I’ve ever seen go against us – if anyone can give me another example of a goal being chopped off because an opposition defender saved it on the line then do feel free to write in. Also, please don’t say that the foul was given for Griffiths backing in, the 5th official clearly points to his hand. By half time, its safe to say I was the most angry I’ve been about a decision since, well, recently when a certain team got away with blatant handball on the line.
By the time 90 minutes was up I was nearly apoplectic, but now my ire was directed at the players. Another goal conceded at a corner (three in total if you’re keeping count), something which wouldn’t be acceptable at Junior level let alone in a game with millions of pounds at stake. Normally fans would be crying out for Van Dijk to be dropped, bizarrely he probably won’t play again but only because he’s been sold for £10 million to the Premier League!
Even worse than all that was the reaction to going two behind and to the injustice of the handball decision. That is to say, there was no reaction. Boyata’s own goal came with 30 minutes to go and the team failed to work the keeper once during the remaining half hour. The hapless Nadir Çiftçi came on, along with Kris Commons and Gary Mackay-Steven, but there seemed no desire, urgency or even a bit of fight and that’s completely unforgivable. At least Bitton and Griffiths looked disgusted with what was happening – enough that both were nearly sent off – and when that’s one of the only positives you can find, you know it’s been a truly horrific display.
Lots of people have subsequently blamed the board, blamed the players, and blamed the manager and – if you ask me – they are all right! Clubs win and lose as a whole and no one is blameless in this sorry tale.
To take Deila and the players first of all, whats the point in the obsession with body fat if it just means a player has 22% less as he haplessly watches the ball sail over his head at the near post, or if two super-fit players crash into one another to lose a tie-changing away goal? None: that’s what. Basic mistakes cost Celtic and both Deila and the players must shoulder the blame and in fairness to them they have all accepted responsibility.
As ever, people are demanding the board splashes more cash, and while I agree that a few more quality additions could help us – just like any team in the world – can we really blame lack of investment when losing out (repeatedly) to sides spending considerably less? Are Malmö, Maribor, Legia Warsaw, Sion, Utrecht, Braga or Artmedia Bratislava financial powerhouses of the game? Of course not, but they have all eliminated Celtic in qualification games over the last decade. Look at some of the teams that will be in Fridays draw, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Malmö, Astana, BATE Borisov, Dynamo Zagreb, if they can make it with the money they have spent, Celtic should be able to as well, the fact they have and Celtic have not is a black mark against everyone from Peter Lawell down to the guy who makes the pies.
It’s easy to say ‘spend money’, but look at some of the recent signings we’ve made costing a pretty penny from the continent, Boerrigter, Bangura, Balde, Pukki, Scepovic, the scouts are clearly doing something wrong also, it’s not how much money its how that money is spent which is most important.
I heard a lot of people last night say this would never have happened to Neil Lennon’s team but let’s be fair; it took Lennon three attempts before his side reached the group stage, for Deila’s Legia/Maribor/Malmö, Lennon had Braga/Utrecht/Sion, so I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s a fair comparison. Calls for Deila’s head are premature, while we’d all rather be in the big one, the Europa League still throws up potential for some great ties and a decent run but there’s no hiding the fact that a lot of the good will which Deila built up last season disappeared like Celtic’s defence at a corner and he has a lot to do to win it back.
A good showing in the Europa League would be a start. I detest seeing English fans looking down their noses at it: European football at any level should be savoured! Bring on Almaty, but let’s practice defending corners before then!