Celtic’s travelling contingent took Wednesday’s 5-1 loss in Madrid in good spirits, but frustration is only natural after such an anticlimactic Champions League return.
Something strange happened on Wednesday night.
When Jota whipped that majestic free kick of his past Thibaut Courtois at the Bernabeu, to score Celtic’s fourth goal from 83 shots across six Champions League matches, it did not change any of the material facts of this most anticlimactic of European campaigns – other than nudging the goal difference down from -12 to -11.
It didn’t stop us suffering our heaviest European away defeat since the 7-1 in Paris five years ago, or finishing with our lowest ever Champions League points tally. And yet, in the pub where I was watching the game – 1,200 miles from Madrid and another 200 or so from Glasgow – grown men leapt out their seats, roared and punched the air. Back at the Bernabeu, ‘our superstar from Portugal’ looked close to crying tears of joy. And when the camera panned to the away end – and indeed various sections of the home end – Celtic fans of all ages (including several primary school weans who definitely dogged at least two days this week) were jigging and singing together the way you do when you’re a few goals up in the final moments of a cup final.
Later, videos filmed by confused locals appeared on Twitter, showing the visitors from Glasgow gleefully streaming down the stairs and into the streets around the stadium chanting their Bella Ciao chant over and over again. My own rudimentary understanding of Italian tells me bella ciao translates as ‘goodbye beautiful’, but if it was the Champions League we were bidding farewell to, ‘beautiful’ would be a stretch for a competition which seems to love dragging Celtic into its many sharp teeth and tentacles and digesting us more brutally than the Sarlacc Pit in Star Wars.
Still, there was something endearing and relatable about this defiant refusal to engage with the brutal reality of Real Madrid’s 5-1 win. Most Celtic fans went into this season’s long-delayed reappearance at European football’s top table with a lengthy wish list. We wanted to re-establish ourselves as a force to be reckoned with on the continent, and do it without compromising the beauty of Ange’s football if possible. We wanted our best players – particularly attackers like Kyogo, Jota and Liel Abada – to step up another level and announce themselves as potential superstars. We wanted Celtic Park to go back to being the sort of Lion’s Den that intimidated visiting players so much they started tripping over their own feet; rather than smiling to the camera when they hear the roar at the end of the anthem, then passing the ball around in pretty triangles for large swathes of the game and popping back out onto the pitch for a few post-victory Instagram snaps. Chiefly, we wanted qualification to the round of 16, or at the very least an escape route into the Europa League.
By the time the full-time whistle sounded on matchday four, it was already clear that basically none of these things were going to happen. So we adjusted our expectations and rewrote the wish list. One solitary home win, against a fired up but limited Shakhtar Donetsk, surely wasn’t too much to ask for? Mykhaylo Mudryk disagreed.
Rounding things off with a visit to the best team in the world on matchday six, all you could realistically hope for was to avoid a humping. But as soon as Josip Juranovic spurned the chance to cut Real’s early 2-0 lead in half from the penalty spot, you knew there would be no dice there, either. Denied even these minor reasons for celebration, the green and white contingent in the Bernabeu decided to simply make up their own reasons. They were there with their mates, watching their team have a go in one of the game’s grandest arenas, and that was enough. And who could blame them? Other teams might have had statistically worse Champions League campaigns than Celtic’s effort this year (including one from Glasgow, apparently…), but surely no-one in the tournament’s history has crammed quite so much frustration into six group games before. So many spurned chances, second half-collapses and injuries to key players at inopportune moments. So many positive spells not capitalised on, only to concede a sloppy goal at the first sign of trouble down the other end. If you want to really wallow in self-pity, you might also lament RB Leipzig’s managerial change (and the exponential improvement in form that followed) happening at the worst possible time, or Shakhtar playing so far above themselves, or Real being so electric under the Celtic Park lights then cruising through most of their remaining fixtures on autopilot. But ultimately these are weak alibis that ignore the overarching truth that Celtic just weren’t good enough in the moments that mattered.
What happens next is the interesting part. It was curious to see Chris Sutton and Tom English – normally the two biggest hatchet wielders around when a Scottish side suffers a high-profile failure in Europe – both pulling their punches and expressing sympathy on Wednesday night. Seemingly, the Scottish media have learnt something from last season when it comes to writing off Ange Postecoglou and this group of players. Money has been banked, profile gained, and the manager seems confident that Celtic will benefit from the experience and be better next year. So do the majority of fans; not just the ones that danced all night in Madrid but the ones back home in pubs and cramming into the club’s replies on Twitter and Insta.
In that climate, it almost feels blasphemous to question the tactical and personnel choices made during the group phase, a crime against the holy writ of trusting the process. But is it? More than once during the campaign the thought occurred that there must be a sensible middle ground to be found; not exactly going 4-6-0 with an Abilgaard-Mooy double pivot, but doing something to avoid being so soft in midfield, and so vulnerable to counter-attacks, that surrendering possession inside the opposition half at times felt like presenting them with an open goal?
Transfer activity both in January and next summer is also a must, and not just to replace the most glaringly out-of-their-depth individuals at the highest level (looking at you, Mooy and Jenz.)
If Celtic’s return to club football’s grandest stage was a stress test of the messianic status Ange holds with the majority of the fanbase, it’s one he appears to have passed with flying colours. And we all know, having lived through this process so many times in so many prior seasons, that the resounding successes potentially awaiting us in the seven domestic games between now and the New Year may soon provide the anaesthesia and amnesia needed to consign what happened in Group F to the back of everyone’s minds. This group of players is easy to love, and will inevitably give us lots more reasons to love bomb them during the remainder of the season. But after that, the Champions League will be waiting on them once again, with all those sharp teeth and tentacles. Going into it with the exact same players and the exact same naked vulnerabilities is simply not an option.
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