By Chris Myson
A year is a long time in football. After beating Barcelona and reaching the last 16 of the Champions League last season, Celtic go into Wednesday’s game with the Catalans knowing it will be their last continental outing of the 2013-14 campaign.
Twelve months ago, Neil Lennon’s men beat Spartak Moscow 2-1 on the final matchday of the group stage. The win took them to the magical 10-point mark and into the money-spinning knockout stages, where they were handed a dream tie against Italian champions Juventus.
This year – unless they can surprisingly pick up a positive result at Camp Nou – Celtic will finish with a total of just three points. Rock bottom of their group and without even the Europa League as a consolation to look forward to after Christmas, they have not even come close to achieving their coach’s target of going one stage further this term.
The margins between perceived success and failure are, of course, incredibly small in top-level sport and Celtic have not gone from being a good team to a bad one overnight, although enough has gone wrong in recent months to deliver an unsatisfactory European campaign.
|CELTIC'S CHAMPIONS LEAGUE CAMPAIGN
2. AC Milan
Hooper was in the last year of his contract and refusing to sign a new one, so it was always likely that he would leave. It was impossible for Celtic to reject a £12.5 million (€15m) bid for Wanyama when they had only signed him for £900,000 (€1.07m) two years earlier and Wilson asked to return to England for family reasons.
With the spine of the team gone, new additions were needed. The club had money to spend – both from the proceeds of those deals and the £22m (€26.2m) revenue from last year’s European exploits. But the recruitment process was not handled well. New players were brought in too late in the summer, when they had not gone through a full pre-season in Glasgow, meaning the summer signings had little time to bed into the team with the club’s season, which began on July 17, already six weeks old.
You can understand the thinking behind the Scottish champions waiting to see if they would make it through qualifying before committing to deals, but Lennon has admitted the approach caused problems and will look to move more quickly when he builds for next season’s campaign, starting in January.
The timing of arrivals is a key factor, but so too has been the quality of players coming in. Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk has been an impressive addition - despite his disappointing performance in the 3-0 loss to AC Milan – but the same cannot be said for any of the others. Derk Boerrigter has struggled for form and fitness, Teemu Pukki has scored just twice in 16 games, Amido Balde is currently too raw to make an impact at the top level, Nir Biton has not forced his way into the team and Steven Mouyokolo is ruled out with a long-term injury.
But even if those players had proven to be a success, the team would have needed more than what came in to replace the stars who moved south.
Transfer market issues aside, the key players who were already in Celtic’s squad can reflect on the campaign knowing they did not perform to the same standards as last year. Fraser Forster will be disappointed with his performance against AC Milan at home. Scott Brown will regret his red card for stupidly kicking out at Neymar against Barcelona, as the lack of an abrasive midfield presence has proven to be a key factor during his suspension.
Georgios Samaras, so often inspirational in big matches, has not stopped running but failed to perform with the same quality as last year. Kris Commons is on fire domestically but is another who will look back on underwhelming displays in Europe.
A return of two goals from five games was never going to be enough, highlighting the absence of a top-class goalscorer. After Hooper’s departure, Anthony Stokes has found it hard to provide a cutting edge, while the same can be said for Samaras and Pukki whenever they have been named in attack.
There has also been an element of misfortune. Celtic were uninspiring in the away defeat to Ajax, but in the first two matches of the campaign Lennon’s men were unlucky to lose. Goalless draws were on the cards against Milan away and Barcelona at home until missed chances came back to haunt them when costly late goals were conceded.
Two points from those opening games would have put a completely different complexion on the group table and those narrow defeats, in games where Celtic held their own, have proven decisive. In the return game against Milan, Lennon’s players only had themselves to blame after conceding two basic goals from corners – an unforgivable situation when you are playing at Champions League level.
Key player sales, a poor transfer market, top players underperforming and vital late goals going against you makes it very difficult to progress in what was always going to be a tough group.
Wednesday’s match will be Celtic’s fourth in two years against Barca and Lennon will want his players to bow out with another creditable performance against the Catalan giants before coming back to produce a much stronger challenge in 2014-15.