Ange Postecoglou will coach his first match in the Champions League on Tuesday night against Real Madrid; a significant milestone in what has been an incredible 15 month period since taking the role in July 2021.
The Australian will be the fifth manager to take Celtic to the group stages in the Champions League era stretching back to the first in 2001. An absence of five years will make Tuesday’s opening fixture special, even before accounting for the opposition, current holders of the iconic trophy; Real Madrid. Madrid are the most decorated side in Champions League history with 14 wins to their name, five of those in the last nine years.
Ahead of that match, we take a look back at each of the previous four managerial debuts in the Champions League from Martin O’Neill through to Brendan Rodgers.
Martin O’Neill – Juventus (A) 2001/02
Following O’Neill’s incredible debut season, as well as a domestic treble, the opportunity to compete in the Champions League was assured with an aggregate victory over Ajax ensuring six matches against some of Europe’s best sides. The traditional elongated draw put Celtic in Group E with Juventus, Porto and Rosenborg.
Matchday one was an away tie against top seed Juventus at the Studio delle Alpi in Turin. It will be remembered primarily for the late penalty decision which cost Celtic a point. The name Nicola Amoruso will immediately elicit anger from a generation of Celtic fans following his cameo appearance in the match. Celtic found themselves 2-0 down shortly after the second-half however fought back to 2-2 with goals from Stiliyan Petrov and a Henrik Larsson penalty in the 86th minute.
Amoruso was a late substitute for Alessandro Del Piero and within minutes the Italian striker was awarded a penalty which he took and scored to deny Celtic a precious point. The award of the penalty was egregious, with Martin O’Neill being sent to the stand for remonstrating with the officials and provided a furious and emotional post-match interview which connected so closely with the feeling of the supporters watching in Turin and at home.
Whilst Celtic walked away empty handed, O’Neill’s side had shown they had the ability to compete at that level and would amass 9 points in the group finishing third behind Porto. Real Madrid would go on to win the competition at Hampden.
Gordon Strachan – Manchester United (A) 2006/07
Gordon Strachan reached what was becoming an even more lucrative group stage of the Champions League in his second year in charge, the league win in 2005/06 securing automatic qualification.
Strachan’s slightly stripped down squad, at least financially, were drawn against Manchester United, Benfica and FC København. Similar to his predecessor O’Neill in 2001, Strachan had an away fixture against the top seed to navigate as he faced Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side. The reunion with his former manager Alex Ferguson, who he had fallen out with decades previously, provided another element of intrigue which was well-worn by the tabloids prior to the fixture.
Once again Celtic proved they had the ability to compete with Europe’s elite despite falling to a 3-2 defeat. Two of the stars of the night for Celtic would have their say later in the group stage, against Manchester United, in Artur Boruc and Shunsuke Nakamura. Nakamura’s incredible free-kick against Edwin van der Sar brought Celtic level, it would be outdone only by his effort against the Dutch goalkeeper at Celtic Park in the home fixture in November.
Strachan’s side finished second in the group securing Champions League football post-Christmas for the first time in the revamped tournament.
Neil Lennon – Benfica (H) 2012/13
Neil Lennon had to wait much longer to hear the iconic Champions League music as manager having competed in the tournament as a player under both Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan. That wait was rewarded with a draw against Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow with the 125th anniversary of the club’s formation falling the day before the home tie against Barcelona.
Lennon’s side hosted Benfica in the opener and shared the points in what was deemed a slightly disappointing 0-0 draw. It was the first appearance in the Champions League for four years, with only Scott Brown having competed at that stage before. In that context the draw was more palatable and the point would prove critical to the subsequent qualification with 10 points.
Lennon had matched the achievements of Strachan in qualifying from the group at the first attempt to set up a last 16 tie against Juventus after Christmas. On paper, the dynamics of that particular group are similar to the profile of that which Ange Postecoglou’s side may face in the coming months.
Brendan Rodgers – Barcelona (A) 2016/17
Looking back at the fixtures above, throughout that period the landscape of European football changed significantly as the finances of the big five European leagues enhanced their dominance. From a Celtic perspective, there is perhaps no clearer indicator of that change than the opening match of the 2016/17 Champions League group stage.
Brendan Rodgers managed to successfully navigate Celtic to the group stage of the Champions League in his first season, the first manager to do so, after three rounds against Lincoln Red Imps, Astana and finally Hapoel Be’er Sheva. A difficult draw against Barcelona, Manchester City and Borussia Mönchengladbach highlighted the scale of the challenge for Rodgers to match the achievements of those before him.
Going into that inaugural match, away to Barcelona, Celtic had dismantled Rangers in a 5-1 victory at Celtic Park with a Moussa Dembele hat-trick announcing his arrival on the scene. What followed was a chastening mauling at Camp Nou with a Lionel Messi opener just a few minutes in signalling the direction of traffic for the remainder of the match. The juxtaposition of what would become domestic dominance against the challenge of remaining competitive in Europe had never been starker.
Rodgers insisted pre-match that Celtic had not come to Barcelona as ‘tourists’ and wanted to ‘ do well’ however the reality was very different against a Barca side well accustomed to running over inferior sides in the group stage. Unlike some of the examples above, the opening day defeat offered little in the way of encouragement. The remainder of the group would provide some encouragement, particularly an enthralling 3-3 home draw with Manchester City under the management of Pep Guardiola. Rodgers’s side amassed only three points in the group however finishing fourth.
Ange Postecoglou faces the challenge of hosting the Pot 1 side, current Champions League winners Real Madrid on the opening matchday. Exactly how that induction fits into the above scale will likely be clear only at the end of the group stage matches however there is both encouragement and caution to be found in the history books.