By Craig Turnbull
It has been a turbulent summer for Scottish football with the upper echelons of the country's national sport insisting it was heading for financial Armageddon.
“The game is not sustainable, there would be a slow lingering death, [without Rangers in the top division],” were the fateful words uttered by the Scottish FA's chief executive Stewart Regan back in July.
Since then, the fallout has not been as bad as some have predicted. Though, the long-term consequences of not having Rangers in the Scottish Premier League are not yet fully known, and indeed many would argue this is an opportunity to revolutionise Scottish football, what is certain is Celtic's foray into the Champions League – their 50th European campaign - has never been more important.
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It was on July 13 that SFL clubs sent Rangers to the Third Division in a 25 to five vote. It was the day the national game took a good look in the mirror and asked some serious questions about where it was heading. Ally McCoist's men realised for them that meant a first trip to Balmoor where they would take on Peterhead as the reality of Third Division football kicked in.
And while it has been well documented about the financial loss to the game with Rangers going down to the bottom tier of Scottish football, the lack of Old Firm matches this season - arguably one of the most iconic fixtures in the world of football – is an even bigger blow.
The uniqueness of the match and the sheer passion of the fans creates an incredible atmosphere. Added to that is the drama and entertainment which draws so many viewers, all of which serve to make it a fascinating tie. Celtic's nights in Europe, however, will offer a great deal of comfort to the Bhoys faithful.
Yet, although there is change in the air as the rest of the SPL teams recalibrate their positions accordingly with the absence of Rangers in the top flight, some things continue to remain the same.
In Europe, Motherwell, St Johnstone, Dundee United and Hearts have all already made early exits and although the SPL clubs gave a good account of themselves against quality opposition, the gulf in class eventually told. Glorious failure once again, an annoying national habit uneasy to kick. Now, the burden lies with Celtic to bring some respite to the Scottish game.
And if at club level there has been barely anything to get fans excited about, poor performances on the international stage have also done little to stem the tide of disappointment. Scotland have recorded two points from a possible six having played both Serbia and Macedonia at home.
Much more was expected of Craig Levein's charges and with trips to both Cardiff and Brussels to come, qualifying for World Cup 2014 could well be a distant hope by the time March next year rolls around when Scotland line-up to face Wales at Hampden.
But Neil Lennon's team could yet offer belief and positivity to a country suffering from a lack of European success at any level for a few seasons, starting with a good display and result against Benfica on Wednesday.
It is 45 years since that famous night in Lisbon when Celtic became the first British club to win the European Cup after beating Inter 2-1, and those memories will be stirred when the Portuguese side come to Glasgow. It is these types of European nights at Celtic Park where the atmosphere is electric that serve as a timely reminder as to why they should be in the Champions League.
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But in a group which also features the likes of Barcelona and Spartak Moscow, there is plenty to whet the appetite while the importance of getting off to a good start and making the most of home advantage cannot be underestimated.
Lennon's side are not merely here to make up the numbers. Having overcome tricky opposition in the form of Helsinki and Helsingborg to reach the group stages for the first time in four years, the Scottish champions will be confident they will be a match for anyone at Celtic Park. Indeed, of the 20 Champions League games played in Glasgow, the Hoops have only lost twice – both times to Barcelona.
There is no doubt Celtic face a tall order to get anywhere near qualifying for the last 16 as fourth seeds - third place seems the more realistic outcome - but the Celts can take solace from the fact that the two times they have made it beyond the group stages in recent years, they beat Benfica on their way.
Another run in Europe would surely lift the spirits of not only the Hoops fans but Scottish football as a whole.
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