After Tuesday’s 6-0 thrashing at the hands of Atletico Madrid, no amount of compliments paid to Celtic’s style of play can lift the sense of desolation.
In the end, one look at the 10 players left on the pitch at full-time on Tuesday night was enough to ram home how naïve it had been ever to harbour any hope that this was the year Celtic’s reputation in Europe would become a living, breathing thing once again, rather than a fossilised relic.
The list read: Hart, Johnston, Carter-Vickers, Scales, Taylor, Holm, Turnbull, Iwata, Yang, Oh.
How many of these names can honestly claim to belong at Champions League level right now? How many of them ever will? (If your answer is more a few, well, I have some NFTs to sell you at a very reasonable price…)
And so, just like cult Italian director Lucio Fulci with his Gates of Hell trilogy, Brendan Rodgers now has his own loose trilogy of separate but thematically linked Euro horror stories as Celtic manager. Barcelona 2016, Paris 2017, Madrid 2023. One goal scored, 20 conceded. The man many seem to think is too big for Celtic, whose continuing presence at Lennoxtown is often spun as some sort of sentimental favour or act of charity, has, with those three results, arguably done as much to traduce the club’s standing on the continent as Messrs Lennon and Deila ever did.
Yet to single him out right now not only feels harsh, but futile. On those two electrifying but exasperating Parkhead nights against Lazio and Atleti in October, the Irishman went much closer to completing the tactical Rubik’s Cube now necessary for Celtic to succeed at this level than Ange Postecoglou did last season. And, if we can childishly invoke the word ‘luck’ for a moment, it’s probably worth mentioning that the deflection for the first goal and the laughably harsh Maeda red card reinforced the sense that somewhere at UEFA’s Nyon HQ there’s a green and white striped voodoo doll covered in pins.
Rodgers is many things. A slick media presence. A developer of talent. A trophy winner. An entertainer. What he isn’t, and never has been, is someone who understands the value of damage limitation. Who knows how to reorganise and remotivate a toiling team at half-time and communicate to them the difference – both in terms of reputation and squad morale – between losing by two or three and being humped six or seven. (And who doesn’t withdraw his captain and his biggest goal threat long before the end in what some might just interpret as a political gesture.)
It’s the sort of thing you’d like to think would have crossed the board’s collective mind back in June when they were feeding those lines to the press about the European progress that would supposedly come hand in hand with Rodgers’ return. But there, again, is that overarching sense of futility. Because, in the grand scheme of things, reappointing Rodgers, if it does prove to be a mistake, is way down the list of things that went wrong at Celtic in the summer, in what now looks like a bold attempt to break the world record for ‘number of bad decisions made by a football club in preparation for a new season.’
Why wasn’t a replacement for Joe Hart signed, or a left-back remotely competent enough to provide some competition for Greg Taylor? Why was £70m stashed away for a rainy day? And who on earth thought that the likes of Kwon, Marco Tilio and Gustav Lagerbielke were ready for Champions League football, when just breaking into a matchday squad up at Dingwall is proving too big an ask for them at the moment?
You might have noticed the plethora of nice things prominent European football personalities have said about Celtic’s principles and style of play both this season and last. Opposition managers Arne Slot, Maurizio Sarri and even the Prince of Darkness Diego Simeone have all been at it this term, and the European football journalists on TNT Sports’ UCL Goals Show have also been highly complimentary. The thing about being the hipster’s crumpet though, is you can’t actually convert it into goals, coefficient points or places in the last 16. Given the chance, all of us would surely swap these vague ‘unlucky, can see what you were trying to do there’ sentiments for just one of the ugly wins over elite opposition, with 28% possession and two shots on goal, that we used to specialise in.
Defeats as brutal as the one Celtic suffered at Estadio Metropolitano not only rob you of your pride as a fan, but of your hope, and of any illusions you might have had about gradual progress being made and next year being different. The harsh truth is that the likes of Kyogo, Matt O’Riley and Reo Hatate may not be here next year, taking with them any chance of the team Ange built being remembered as much more than a particularly dashing and likeable set of domestic flat-track bullies.
Of course there are still two games to play against Lazio and Feyenoord, and somehow, because maths, Celtic are technically still in with a teensy chance of finishing third or even second in the group. But while the fans will inevitably still be there in numbers and in good voice, it’s difficult – and indeed sort of understandable, having seen their hopes smashed to pieces not long after the halfway stage of the group for a second season running – to imagine the players embodying a similar level of enthusiasm. I’d love to tell you there’s still hope. I’d love to say there’s still lots to play for. But, as anyone who had to endure John Hartson’s patter on Tuesday night could confirm, it’s not nice being patronised.