It’s been a long time coming but the Hoops are back in the big time. Courtesy of the Bhoys reclaiming the Scottish Premiership title last season, Celtic have returned to European football’s biggest club competition for the first time in five years and Ange Postecoglu’s side are chomping at the bit to leave their mark on Europe’s elite.
It has been 15 long years since both Glaswegian giants competed in the Champions League and after the historic Europa League run of counterparts Rangers last season, Scottish football was in need of a performance in the opening fixtures to back it up and show it was no fluke. It was a massive opportunity for Scottish clubs to show what they’re capable of, a chance to show that clubs north of the border can hang with the best of them, and Celtic delivered.
Despite falling to a 3-0 defeat at Celtic Park to Los Blancos in their opening game of the Champions League group stage, Calum McGregor’s team can feel immensely proud and optimistic about their chances after going toe-to-toe with Carlo Ancelotti’s European conquerors.
The defiant display highlighted just how far this squad has come under their Australian coach and the 60,000 crammed into Paradise that night gave the players a rapturous ovation for their efforts come the final whistle, and rightfully so. Even the staunchest of critics cannot deny that Scottish clubs are starting to make serious waves in Europe, but just how far can they ride this surging wave of momentum?
Reflecting on their opening match, Postecoglou’s men have plenty of positives to take from their return to the Champions League. Celtic were more than a match for their Spanish opponents in the first half and went close to taking the lead a number of times in what was their first group game in five years, with Liel Abada twice failing to beat Thibaut Courtois inside 13 minutes and McGregor unfortunate to see his first-time strike bounce to safety off the inside of the post.
Daizen Maeda also missed a sitter to put the Hoops in front early on in the second half but Madrid eventually showed their class, with Vinicius Junior and Luka Modric netting in the space of four minutes just before the hour mark.
Eden Hazard added another to put a harsh sheen on the scoreline and Celtic were denied a consolation goal despite some late opportunities. The scoreline gave more credit to a Madrid side than it really deserved as the Hoops were in with a shot of walking away with at least a point.
It’s a lesson that they may be able to get away with the odd mistake in the Scottish Premiership but any slight slip-up will likely be punished on the European stage and on this occasion it was.
That being said there is plenty of reason to be hopeful for the remained of the group stage; Madrid are favourites to top the group and whilst there is still plenty of quality in the RB Leipzig and Shakhtar Donetsk squads, the Bhoys are unlikely to face a similar struggle as they did on the opening night against that opposition. Even in the disappointment of defeat, it was a test they passed.
Whilst the latest betting bonuses have the two Scottish teams as longshots, both will be hoping to upset a few of the heavyweights along the way.
On the face of it a 3-0 defeat at home while Rangers faced a 4-0 hammering at the hands of Ajax less than 24 hours later might not look like the best of starts for the Scottish sides, but that view is shortsighted. It puts pressure on getting something from the next few games to stay in the fight until the business end of the group stage, but you would be hard pressed to find two more difficult and ferocious atmospheres to navigate in World football than Celtic Park and Ibrox.
Giovanni Van Bronckhorst’s side have used it to great advantage recently producing some of the standout results across all of Europe in the last few seasons, and the Hoops in the same vein have storied history under the lights on European nights. Famous wins against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona at the peak of their powers are just two that stand out amongst a catalogue of big performances. No matter the quality of the opponent, even the most feared opposition come to Glasgow dreading one of football’s most intimidating environments.
There is something special in the air when it comes to European nights in Scotland’s footballing capital and teams have been known to crumble under the pressure. Rangers perhaps face the tougher task in surpassing Napoli, Liverpool and Ajax to make it through their group but they have demonstrated time and time again that they can overcome the odds. Celtic face a similar uphill battle in their group now off the back of the Madrid defeat but Leipzig and Donetsk are two very beatable sides, especially with Postecoglu’s side in top form having netted 35 goals in their opening nine games this campaign.
For Celtic to have a chance of qualification to the knockout stage, they will likely have to win their remaining two home matches. The Germans visit Glasgow first on October 11 before the Ukrainians follow suit as the final side to travel to Celtic Park in the group stage 14 days later. This team has what it takes to deliver on that but it must use the home crowd to their advantage. The atmosphere was electric on the day and played its part; it will have to do so again if they are to reach the promised land of the last-16.
The result against Madrid ultimately puts the team on the backfoot in group F but regardless, the performance will have Celtic fans dreaming of their first appearance in the knockout stages since 2013 in what is shaping up to be another rollercoaster season for the Glaswegian giants.
Albeit, there is still a lot of work to be done to guarantee the club have more to look forward to past December, but they can undoubtedly achieve that goal. The Old Firm are once again back amongst the elite, flourishing on the European stage and enjoying their continental adventures. They have well and truly put Scottish football back on the map and there is no reason why fans shouldn’t dream of more European finals down the road.