Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Scottish clubs aren't underachieving in Europe at all

In the first of a two parter, Martin Ingram dispels the myth that Scottish sides are underachieving in Europe...

Celtic Park will be packed for the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Play-off against Malmö FF of Sweden on Wednesday.  Participating in the ‘Champions Route’ (for league champions), Celtic – the last team standing of Scotland’s club participants in Europe this season - were drawn as the seeded team and go into the tie as favourites to qualify for the Champions League group stages and reap the associated riches.  Regardless of the result, this will not be the end of Celtic’s European campaign; the losing team will simply enter the group stage of the Europa League instead.  However, there is no doubt that, with the Bhoys expected to cruise to another Scottish Premiership title come next May – and preferably also a domestic cup or two – progress to the Champions League Group Stage is the benchmark that this side, and manager Ronny Deila, is ultimately going to be measured against.

My own team, Aberdeen, were the last Scottish team to depart from the Europa League qualification process.  St. Johnstone and ICT went out at the first time of asking, in the 1st and 2nd qualifying rounds for the Europa League, respectively - the Perth Saints will have been upset to have gone out to Alashkert of Armenia; however ICT realistically always had a tough draw against Astra Giurgiu of Romania, who still remain in the competition following victory over West Ham United.  Having narrowly squeezed past FK Shkendija of Macedonia on away goals thanks to a first leg strike by Niall McGinn, the Dons pulled off a fantastic upset by then knocking out HNK Rijeka of Croatia - an emphatic 3-0 win on the Adriatic Coast was followed by a nervy but ultimately sufficient 2-2 draw at Pittodrie.

Despite most neutral observers acknowledging a cracking result for Scottish fitba’, there were still those who wished to rain on our parade. Ewan Murray of the Guardian tweeted, following the win in Rijeka: “People also telling us what a sensational result this is… Having never heard of the opposition a month ago.”

This was rather missing the point, given that Rijeka had made the group stages of the Europa League in the previous two seasons, and were unbeaten in 12 home matches during those runs.  Sevilla, a team I think most folk have heard of, failed to win there last season and they went on to win the tournament.

Unfortunately, Aberdeen couldn’t capitalise further on this and went out in the next round to Kairat Almaty of Kazakhstan. Aberdeen’s demise was greeted with the following tweet by Keith Jackson of the Daily Record: “This Aberdeen result is nothing to gloat about. Another eye watering boot in the hawmaws for the reputation of Scottish football.”

Firstly, I can confirm that I managed to restrain myself from getting right in the faces of my work colleagues on Friday morning to brag about our 1-1 draw the previous night and failure to get through the 3rd round of Europa League qualifying. Secondly, I think we need to have a far more realistic reappraisal of the current status of Scottish club fitba’ as compared to the top clubs from other European leagues. For example, Gerard Gohou, the Ivorian striker who scored the away goal that ultimately secured Kairat’s progress to the next round, is apparently on a salary of 1.8million Euros. That would be around one third of Aberdeen’s entire staff wages. (That is to say, the entire staff wages, not just the players…) 

 That’s not to make an excuse for losing – I didn’t think there was that much difference between the teams over the two legs, and was disappointed that the Dons went out – but to bring some realism to the task that faces Scottish clubs in competing against teams from supposed ‘minnow’ nations with well-funded squads of international footballers. (I also assume that Anatoliy Tymoshchuk didn’t go there for pocket money and ‘Borat’ mankinis) Nor is it to say that Scottish clubs should be spending what they do not have – I think that has been tried before and look what happened.

Keith Jackson also continues to regurgitate a certain myth, which he perpetuated in an article for his particular tabloid paper, about Celtic’s chances in Europe being undermined by the rest of Scottish football. (An article that was dissected in far greater detail in the last edition of The Red Final – thought I’d get a plug in there!)  “It’s grossly unfair Scotland’s champions must be saddled with the baggage of others every time they step on a plane and ridiculous that Deila will be back at Lennoxtown … to begin his pre-season schedule.”

As for the “others”?  “There is … a weight of responsibility pressing down on the shoulders of Aberdeen, St. Johnstone and newcomers Caley Thistle. If Scotland’s rot is to stop these three will have to begin landing some blows.”  To suggest that these teams begin to landing some blows is a bit insulting, seeing as it at once insinuates that ICT could have done anything other than this given that they were making their European debut, while also completely missing the ties won by the very same Aberdeen and St. Johnstone teams over the last couple of seasons against Rosenborg & Lucerne (in the case of the Perth Saints) and Groningen (in the case of the Dons) all teams with coefficients very much higher than ours. Nobody is asking that anyone fall at our feet for winning those ties but the results do not warrant such a degree of snide and disrespectful denigration.

(We’ll not dwell on Motherwell here, who fell afoul of Keith Lasley’s inability to restrain himself from fouling Icelanders in his own penalty area as the Steelmen went out at the first hurdle to Stjarnan a year ago)

By contrast, Celtic lost 4-1 to Legia Warsaw in Poland and 2-0 at Murrayfield in their Champions League 3rd qualifying round tie last season, which appeared to give Legia a 6-1 aggregate victory. However the result of the second game was annulled by UEFA because Legia had fielded a player who should have been serving a suspension (Bartosz Bereszynski came on in the 86th minute) – Celtic were instead given a 3-0 victory in the second leg, which meant that they won the tie on the away goals rule. Rules are rules, of course, but even the most one-eyed Celtic supporters must have considered themselves a tad fortunate to get through this one.

Progressing to the play-off round of the Champions League, the seeded side drew NK Maribor. The Slovenians duly proceeded to collect their third consecutive Scottish scalp, courtesy of a shock 1-0 victory in the second leg in Glasgow. Having transferred to the Europa League Group Stage instead, Celtic did manage to progress to the Round of 32 before being narrowly edged out by Inter Milan 4-3 on aggregate. (It should be noted that, in terms of relative rankings, Inter Milan were rated as better than Celtic by the same order of magnitude as Groningen were over Aberdeen that season, and Rosenborg were over St. Johnstone the season before that)

The target for last season was clearly qualification for the Champions League Group Stages, and in that respect Ronny Deila’s first European campaign fell short of expectations. While Deila still managed to deliver domestically with a League and League Cup double, a second successive failure to reach the Champions League Group Stages - and the riches that come with it – and questions about Ronny’s long term future may suddenly start resurfacing.

Part 2 tomorrow - looking back at the last five seasons, and which teams did themselves proud and which let themselves down?  You might be surprised...

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final.

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