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Celtic’s European Elite 2004 – 2022

by Ronnie McCluskey

After a bruising return to Champions League competition, there is a definite sense of what might have been. Setting aside the numerous goalscoring opportunities we created, however, it was a largely familiar story for the Hoops on the continent as we came unstuck against a succession of well-drilled teams. Ah well, there’s always next year. 

Speaking of next year, 2023 will mark two decades since our most memorable contemporary European run, to the UEFA Cup Final in Seville under Martin O’Neill. That squad was truly formidable, with character and quality all over the pitch. As well as having a Champions League-winning captain anchoring our attacks in Paul Lambert, we also had a truly world-class talisman in Henrik Larsson. It is scarcely believable that the 20th anniversary of that heartbreaking final draws so near. 

Although we have recorded some fine European victories since then – beating Barcelona in 2004 and 2012, toppling Spartak in Moscow in 2013, overcoming Lazio home and away in 2019 – it’s fair to say we’ve failed to build on what we accomplished in the 2002/03 season. Admittedly the financial gap has widened and the qualifying rounds have made it more challenging to qualify for European competition. But ultimately, we should and could have done a lot better. Defeats to Bodø/Glimt, Ferencváros, Copenhagen, Cluj, AEK Athens, Zenit St Petersburg, Malmo and Maribor retrospectively sting: these are not, after all, giants of European football. 

If the impending 20-year anniversary of the Seville run sets you in a gloomy mood, you’d probably rather not know that another anniversary is coming down the pipe: barring a strong European campaign next season, it’ll be 20 years since we won a European knockout tie come 2024. 

Although the stats make for bleak reading, we have had a number of top-quality players and strong teams since the Seville era; perhaps the problem is that we’ve never quite had an XI that could strike fear into the hearts of opponents. So let’s build one. For my money, this is the best Celtic XI since that 2003 final. A fantasy team that, with everyone performing at their best, would certainly be capable of recording some emphatic victories at Europe’s top table.

A caveat: I have not included anyone who was part of the Seville squad, even if they remained at the club for several years beyond. 

GK – Artur Boruc 

Deciding who to put between the sticks wasn’t easy. Ultimately, it came down to the Holy Goalie Artur Boruc and La Gran Muralla, Fraser Forster. Both were impregnable at times, and the Englishman actually holds the Scottish top flight record for minutes without conceding a goal: 1,256 during the 13/14 season. In his second stint he also made many momentous stops, none more consequential than those in the 2019 League Cup final. So why did I choose cult hero Boruc? 

The Polish stopper wasn’t just a fan favourite: he was an immense figure between the posts, a larger-than-life leader equally adept at rousing the back line and the crowd at his back. He also apparently rebuffed offers from Man City, Arsenal and Tottenham to stay in Paradise which scores him some extra points. Whether saving penalties in the Champions League (against Man United and Spartak), noising up our rival fans or making spectacular saves at the World Cup, the maverick Pole always made a major impact. 

LB – Kieran Tierney 

This one picked itself, didn’t it? Kieran Tierney blazed through the Celtic youth system like a comet before making his senior debut at 17, and he went on to become a mainstay of the team during our history-making Treble Treble success. 

You’ve got to think the defender’s best days are still to come – he’s still only 25 – but it was at Paradise that he put himself on the map and became a genuinely brilliant player under the tutelage of first Ronny Deila then Brendan Rodgers. A high-energy fullback, Tierney was lightning-quick, assured on the ball, and possessed of vision that belied his tender years. You only need to look at the clutch of honours he won while wearing green and white, among them PFA Scotland Young Player of the Year for three consecutive seasons. He even won Goal of the Season for a 40-yard screamer against Kilmarnock in the League Cup. 

Tierney’s positional sense, steel, desire to get to the byline and end product make him an easy choice for this XI. 

CB – Virgil van Dijk 

Big Virgil is another no-brainer. What can you say about the man? He was a colossus, a Rolls-Royce. That he went on to become the best-rated central defender on the planet, and a Champions League winner at Liverpool, surprised very few of us who watched him stroll it in Scotland between 2013-15. 

With his centre-back partner in this line up, Van Dijk would give us the stability, nerve and composure we’d need against a strong attacking line, irrespective of how creative they might be. He’d also command the air at set pieces, and his athleticism and ball-playing ability would help us initiate attacks in a positive manner. 

CB – Cameron Carter-Vickers 

Some people might think I’m jumping the gun by including Carter-Vickers in an all-star Celtic XI, but who would you honestly play in front of him? The 24-year-old has been a revelation since he came into the squad, a no-nonsense centre-back who, like Virgil, knows how to pick a pass and calm things down during nervy passages. 

Perhaps the most physical defender we’ve had since Bobo Balde, the muscular American has been a linchpin of Ange Postecoglou’s team, the beating heart of our backline. While many players proved crucial to our double-winning campaign last season, CCV was utterly indispensable.

Come on, can you imagine him and Van Dijk playing beside each other? 

RB – Mikael Lustig 

Mikael Lustig wasn’t exactly Danny McGrain but what he lacked in finesse he more than made up for with commitment, fitness and consistency. Signed from Rosenborg on a pre-contract, the dependable Swedish internationalist went on to lift 16 trophies including eight consecutive league titles. The right-back was also a major part of our Invincible Treble campaign as Brown’s deputy, and could even pop up with a goal on occasion. Who could forget his frenzied run and finish at Ibrox in 2017, or the diving header at Pittodrie in 2019?

LW – Aiden McGeady

Aiden McGeady was part of Celtic’s youth setup during the Seville run, but first broke into the team in 2004 as a nimble, go-getting winger. When it was all said and done he had achieved an armful of honours in Paradise, including four league titles, a pair of Scottish Cups and a League Cup, before making the switch to Spartak Moscow for a then-record £9.5m fee. He had also shown his ability at that level at a very young age with an incredible performance at home against AC Milan in 2004/05.

A phenomenal talent, McGeady could control the ball with both feet, breaking up the opposition lines with bold dribbling runs. He could beat a man, play a terrific through ball, cut inside and shoot; he had an arrogance about him that was refreshing for a young homegrown player. Of course, he could be maddeningly inconsistent too at times – but that’s often the way with young talent. On the left wing, McGeady gives this team the creative flair necessary to compete in Europe. It’s also easy to imagine him and Tierney bamboozling opponents down that flank of the pitch.

CM – Scott Brown (C) 

Broony captained Celtic for 11 of his 14 years at the club, including the entirety of the nine-in-a-row/Quadruple Treble run. For that alone, you’ve got to put him in the centre of the park, even if we’ve had some more dynamic, swashbuckling central midfielders during that tenure. 

Brown was at his influential best under Rodgers, picking up his second PFA Players’ Player of the Year award in the Double Treble-winning 17-18 season, and he’s just the kind of fearless bulwark you need against quality adversaries. Combative, well-organised, tidy in possession and known for his superhuman fitness, the No.8 was a fantastic leader and a motivating force to all around him. Easy choice as both a starter and as captain. 

CM – Victor Wanyama 

Victor Wanyama spent just two years in Paradise before moving to Southampton for a hefty £12.5m fee. Then in his early twenties, the imposing Kenyan quickly became a fan favourite due to his purposeful style, robust tackling, and excellent game awareness – though he’s probably best remembered for scoring the first goal in our heroic 2-1 win over Barcelona in 2012. 

In truth, Brown’s midfield partner could have been any number of accomplished players we’ve had since Seville, most glaringly current captain Callum McGregor. But Wanyama offers something a bit different: bull-like strength, an aerial threat, excellent defensive nous. With the quality of players around him in this line-up, he’d flourish. 

RW – Shunsuke Nakamura 

To get results in Europe you need unpredictability and vision, and who had more of these qualities than the precocious playmaker and free-kick specialist Shunsuke Nakamura? Naka bagged 34 goals in 166 appearances for the Hoops, including two domestic hat-tricks and one of our best goals of the century so far: a glorious 30-yard free kick curled over the Man Utd wall in the 2006 Champions League. His second dead-ball strike against Edwin van der Sar in the group stage.

A proven performer on the big stage, the cultured Japan international seemed able to play anywhere in the midfield line, and I briefly debated putting him in the No.10 role. Ultimately, though, he goes on the right, and his ability to drift inside and pick a pass or let fly with his wand-like left foot will give opponents a lot to think about. 

AMC – Tom Rogic 

Cynic contributor Scott Fleming called him “the spiritual successor to Naka and Lubo,” and to be fair, there’s probably no higher compliment. Rogic was one of those twinkle-toed players that make the beautiful game look easy. Whether jinking past four Dundee Utd players and slotting into the bottom corner, breenging into the box to score an injury-time winner against Aberdeen to seal the Invincible Treble, or scoring multiple goals against our city rivals, the Wizard of Oz had an unerring ability to light up a match. 

While Rogic wasn’t the most physical player (nor the fittest) he rarely needed to be due to his peerless close control, deftly weighted passes, and eye for goal. He has a solid midfield behind to do his running; with Nakamura and McGeady either side of him, and the Aussie sitting behind the striker, I foresee plenty of opportunities for goals and assists…

CF – Moussa Dembélé 

Four defenders and five midfielders leaves room for just one talisman, and as with the centre midfielders there could’ve probably been a few names in the mix with a long list of both long time strikers and short-term fixes with fleeting moments to their name. The once 40-goal Leigh Griffiths, Dutchman Jan Venegoor of Hesselink or Swede John Guidetti. The incomparable Georgios Samaras. Odsonne Edouard, who achieved overnight legend status after sealing the winner at Ibrox in a memorable 3-2 win. In the end though, I opted for Moussa. 

The imperious Frenchman scored 51 goals in 94 competitive fixtures for Celtic, including a bundle against the Rangers, a brace in the Champions League vs Man City, and several at the business end of domestic cup competitions. Dembélé was a rare breed, a strong, athletic frontman who could hold up play, effortlessly shrug off defenders, find pockets of space and invariably smash the ball into the net (or, on occasion, Panenka it). 

In this team, which let’s face it has three very attack-minded midfielders supported by the rugged duo of Wanyama and Brown in the spine, Dembélé would be the main man in the middle, the out-ball and focal point for our forward thrusts. Not only does Moussa have the presence and movement to keep centre-backs busy, but he’d undoubtedly open up space for Rogic, Naka and McGeady to do their thing. And fire home plenty himself when the ball lands at his feet. 

Well, that’s my team. It has a bit of everything, I feel. Composed ball-playing defenders. Fearless, inventive wingers on both sides. Competent midfield generals adept at tackling, steadying the ship, and recycling play. A Wizard of a number 10. And a thoroughbred goalscorer who thrived on the big occasions. 

Who would you tag out/in if building your best XI since Seville? Have your say in the comments below.

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