SCOTTISH Football has taken a battering over the years on the Continental Stage.
Time after time, most of our sides have been going out of Europe before the summer has ended, whilst Celtic have had mixed fortunes in both failing to qualify for the Champions League and suffered some hammerings off some of Europe’s best clubs. The domino effect has been to the coefficient, which has taken a serious hit in the last decade.
Thankfully, there seems to be a shed of light in this seasons Europa League in the shape of our country’s top two clubs, Celtic and Rangers.
Four games into group stages, both clubs have achieved some terrific results, which has seen Celtic advance to the knockout stages and Rangers take themselves to within three points of achieving the same feat. When you consider the knocks that our sides have been through, it’s refreshing to see the two in such a solid position.
Celtic themselves suffered a blow by missing out on the Champions League thanks to the shock defeat to Cluj, meaning they fell into this competition. It’s a real credit to Neil Lennon and his players that they’ve recovered from that setback to perform as well as they have done by claiming ten points from a possible 12 in their group.
It’s not as if they’ve come up against any mugs at this level. Rennes are a respectable outfit who have £20m signing Raphinha in their ranks, top seeds Lazio and their old foes in Cluj, who also dropped from the Champions League into the Europa League. Having come from behind to draw in Rennes, a solid 2-0 win to gain some form of revenge on the Romanians set the Hoops up nicely for the double header with the Italians.
The first match at Celtic Park was eventful. Having dominated the early stages, the Scottish Champions suffered a blow just before half time when the visitors went in front. A ropey start to the second half made you wonder if the game was going away from them before Lennon made a tactical substitution to change the game in his sides favour, and how it worked. Ryan Christie’s equaliser was followed up by a last minute Christopher Julien header to turn the game on its head, before Fraser Forster’s wonder save at the death ensured Celtic got over the line for their best European night at Parkhead since they beat Barcelona in 2012.
Going to Rome for the return fixture, many wondered if Celtic could do something they hadn’t done before – win on Italian soil. It wasn’t looking good early on as Lazio took a seventh minute lead, but the visitors grew into the game to level through James Forest before half time. Forster was a key man again by making a couple of good saves towards the end of the game and Lennon’s men could’ve been forgiven for settling for a point. However, they won it in similar fashion as they did two weeks ago with a last minute winner from a Frenchman, this time Olivier Ntcham popped up to be the hero and Celtic made history with their first win in Italy, enough to seal their place in the last 32.
For Neil Lennon, it showed his character to a tee. Not many Celtic fans were in favour of him keeping the job beyond his interim spell in the wake of Brendan Rodgers sudden departure, and the Cluj defeat angered them further. For him to work with the side and make them harder to beat on the continent again proved that Peter Lawwell was right to give him a second tenure, with some arguing that they are now playing better at home and abroad than they did for the last year of Rodgers reign.
Meanwhile, their rivals have also been performing very well, having initially gone through four qualifying rounds for the second consecutive season to reach the group stages.
Arguably, Rangers should’ve beaten Feyenoord by more than the 1-0 score line at at Ibrox in Matchday One, which shows how well they played on the night. Away to Young Boys in Switzerland, they played reasonably well, before a combination of a top class save from the home goalkeeper from a Morelos shot and a James Tavernier blunder saw them come away with nothing.
Going to top seeds Porto was never going to be an easy task, and it was made harder when the hosts took the lead through Diaz. However, an equaliser from Morelos on half time was enough to earn them a valuable away point, though some believe they played well enough in the second half to merit all three. The return match at Ibrox was a nervy affair for long spells, especially in the first half when Glenn Kamara cleared a Pepe header off the line.
Rangers though grew into the game and got the breakthrough when that man Morelos scored with a very well taken strike, before he set up Steve Davis to drive home the second with the aid of a deflection. Porto never got going again after that and Rangers claimed a vital three points, meaning they will join their arch rivals in the next round should they win in Feyenoord in three weeks time.
It’s a far cry from the humiliation of Progres Niederkorn almost two and a half years ago under flop Pedro Caixinha and his underperforming squad. Steven Gerrard has restored the clubs reputation in Europe over the past 18 months with some impressive results, and that will be enhanced further should they finish in a top two position, which would be some achievement given they were fourth seeds in this section.
Gerrard also deserves great credit for his work with Morelos. He could’ve been forgiven for cashing in on the Colombian in the wake of that stupid red card at Parkhead, his fifth of the season, having grown fed up of his erratic disaplinary record. Choosing to stick by Morelos has paid dividends, with Morelos now delivering more in bigger matches and largely keeping his discipline in check.
So with one side into the knockout stages of the Europa League and another within touching distance of the same feat, it’s not a bad position for Celtic and Rangers to be in, and for Scottish Football as a whole. Without trying to influence rival fans into cheering on our clubs, at the end of the day that’s an individual choice that should be respected either way, seeing more of our clubs performing well on the continent can only be a good thing as it opens up more spaces for more Scottish clubs to qualify for Europe in the future.
One day, we may see two sides from our country compete in the Champions League again, like in 2003/04 and 2007/08. For now though, the fact both Celtic and Rangers are competing well at Europa League level is a much needed boost for our coefficient and pride after many years of suffering from timid early exits at the hands of mediocrity.