Celtic's chance for Champions League success a welcome respite from domestic struggles

The Hoops could be one match away from sealing a famous qualification to the knockout stages but such dizzy heights in Europe are a contrast to their performances closer to home
By Chris Myson

Celtic go into Wednesday night's game against Spartak Moscow knowing that they will qualify for the Champions League knockout stages if they can better the result that Benfica pick up in their match away to Barcelona.

Those permutations mean that Neil Lennon's side go into the final matchday of Group G as favourites to secure a crucial second spot in the group and reach the last 16 for the first time since 2007-08.

Progression to join Europe's elite 16 in the knockout stages would be a miraculous achievement for the Scottish champions, five years on from the last time that they achieved the feat under Gordon Strachan.

When the draw was made, a brave challenge for progression and a spot in the Europa League was widely accepted as the best for which Celtic could hope, a school of thought that did not change after an uninspiring 0-0 home draw with Benfica on the opening matchday.

The campaign was turned on its head with a dramatic 3-2 win over Wednesday's opponents in Moscow and followed by the memorable double-header of games against Barca, before defeat to Benfica in Lisbon set up this tantalising final day shootout to qualify.

Read our match preview as Celtic prepare to face Spartak Moscow in a match that could send them through to the Champions League last 16
If Celtic do it, there will be huge fanfare and it would take Lennon closer to the standing of former boss Martin O'Neill, who famously led the club to Seville and the 2003 Uefa Cup final, where they only just lost out to Jose Mourinho's Porto – a match in which the current Celtic boss actually played.

On the face of it, with the team thriving in Europe and competing strongly against the continent's best sides, you would think the club are coping rather well in a season that initially promised little excitement after rivals Rangers were relegated to the Third Division after their financial collapse.

But, in actual fact, away from the glamour of worldwide coverage, sell-out stadiums and Champions League success, things have been far from easy for the Bhoys closer to home.

The domestic season has failed to take off. As expected, Celtic are top of the Scottish Premier League but they are leading only by one point and bold pre-season media predictions that they would have the title secured by Christmas are looking well wide of the mark.

They have made their worst start to a league season in 14 years – even Kenny Dalglish's disastrous time in charge did not see results this bad – and they have worryingly won only three times and scored just seven goals in as many home matches in the league this season.

Twelve of the 17 domestic points that they have dropped have taken place after Champions League matches, suggesting that the squad is not strong or experienced enough to be rotated – a balance that is struck more easily by the tournament's bigger clubs, who have greater resources at their disposal.

On Saturday, they were held to a dreadful 1-1 draw at home to Second Division Arbroath in the Scottish Cup. Admittedly that was a much-changed side but a week earlier they lost 1-0 at home to Inverness CT in the SPL.

7/1 Celtic are 7/1 with William Hill to beat Spartak Moscow 1-0 at home
During the match, Lennon was involved in a bust-up with an angered fan seated near the dugout area and after the game he told the press that he would resign if the fans were not happy with the team's progress.

That is not a threat on which anyone in Scotland expects him to follow through and Celtic did recover to beat Hearts at Tynecastle in their next game but such unrest around the club must seem astonishing to those who have only seen the Hoops in continental action this season.

With Spartak having nothing left to play for and a vociferous support inside Parkhead, you would still expect Celtic to get a result good enough to make the knockout stages despite hardly coming into the game in consistent form, particularly in their home matches.

If they go through, it would represent a remarkable achievement in Europe and cement Lennon's iconic status at the club, giving a young squad the perfect platform to succeed both this year and beyond.

If they do not, attention will quickly turn to their struggles domestically and serious questions will be asked. How the result of one game can make such a difference to careers and legacies highlights just how fickle football can be at times - but the importance of this match simply cannot be understated.

Follow Chris Myson on