AFTER a two year absence, Celtic were included in yesterday’s Champions League draw where they learned their group stage opponents.
The Hoops reward for overcoming Israeli outfit Hapoel Beer Sheeva was being placed in Group C alongside German side Borussia Moenchengladbach, Premier League mercenaries Manchester City and the familiar face of Barcelona, whom they’ve met on four previous occasions in the competition, three of them in the group stages including the last two campaigns they’ve appeared in.
Following two dismal campaigns under Ronny Deila, which included humiliating defeats by Maribor and Malmo, getting back into Europe’s Premier Club competition is a welcome boost for Celtic.
However, there are lots of issues for Brendan Rodgers to address if they are to have any chance of progression in the competition or even drop into the Europa League which, considering the mammoth task in overcoming Barca and City in particular, is a more realistic aim.
The main concern remains with the defence and goalkeeper.
Craig Gordon is a shadow of the keeper who earned himself a £9m move to Sunderland 9 years ago, that’s stating the obvious given he was out the game for over two years. Even in his first season at Parkhead, he looked a commanding no.1 in the wake of Fraser Forster’s departure and was voted our writers Player of the Year in 2014/15.
However, he has suffered a significant drop in form that has seen him make basic errors and chooses to remain rooted to his line every time a ball comes into his box, a far cry from the heyday where he commanded his box as well as any of his fellow Goalkeepers South of the Border.
The two legs against Hapeol saw him concede soft goals thanks to poor positional sense, misjudgement of a header and the failure to take command from a routine cross, though the latter was partially the fault of Saidy Janko.
Rodgers has brought in another keeper to keep Gordon on his toes but is Dorus De Vries the answer to step in if the former Hearts keeper continues his erratic displays?
Gordon of course is not helped by what’s in front of him and the defence again showed lapses in concentration that almost cost them against the Israeli’s.
It is clearly an area Rodgers is keen to address and has made his intention clear with the signing of Kolo Toure and ditching the liability that is Efe Ambrose.
However, Toure is a short-term measure whilst both Erik Sviatchenko and Josep Simunovic recover from injury and there are question marks over the latter’s fitness given he’s hardly featured since his £5m to the club last season.
The other two centre back options are Derdick Boyata and Eoghan O’Connell, neither of whom will fill the Celtic fans with full confidence given Boyata’s erratic form last season and O’Connell’s inexperience.
Right back is also an issue. Janko has not looked at ease in a Celtic shirt whilst Mikhael Lustig is injury prone.
The defensive issues need to be addressed and quickly if Celtic are to defy the odds heavily stacked against them in this group. They got away with it against Hapoel but any lapses of concentration will be brutally punished by the likes of Messi, Suarez, Aguero and De Bruyne. In addition, Celtic won’t get anywhere near the amount of chances they got in the first leg against the Israeli’s when they come up against far superior opposition.
To be honest, my initial prediction is that Celtic will do well to get three points from the six games. Whilst Celtic Park will be an intimidating atmosphere, they are coming up against opposition used to hostile atmospheres and their quality will be too much.
Of course, I hope I’m wrong and that they defy the odds to get into the last 16 or even finish Third and drop into the Europa League. Scottish Football more than ever needs its teams to do well on the Continent, therefore club rivalry goes out the window as the good of our game takes priority.
It would be naïve to think that all football fans up here will think the same, and it’s understandable why people can’t bring themselves to wish Celtic well on the European stage, it’s a personal opinion at the end of the day.
Whether fans out with Celtic wish them well or not, their return to the Champions League brings added interest in the competition North of the Border, therefore, whether people admit it or not, it is a good thing they are back at Europe’s top table.
It will probably take some time for Brendan Rodgers to build a side capable of advancing to the knockout phases of the competition. How he addresses the obvious flaws in this Celtic side will determine whether they make significant progress or endure a painful campaign.