Trouble in 'Paradise': The fallout from Celtic's Champions League nightmare

Updated: Mar 7, 2020

This week I look at the impact caused by Celtic’s Champions League exit and how there has been a massive overreaction.

CFR Cluj celebrate their late winner against Celtic. Image: Action Images via Reuters

Scottish football fans shared feelings of shock, despair and joy at Celtic’s Champions League exit last Tuesday evening, as, against all expectation, Celtic were defeated 4-3 by Romanian champions CFR Cluj. It was a tie they should've won.


Crash, burn and knocked out. Goodnight, Vienna.


After the game, fans of opposing teams took to social media to gloat. There were fake CFR Cluj accounts mocking Celtic, the winning CFR Cluj goal given the Titanic music treatment, and numerous other accounts having a field day at Celtic’s expense.


It was all expected to be so different! As you listened to pundits on Monday night’s BBC Sportsound, a comfortable victory for Celtic was on the cards. They were expected to bang a few goals past the Romanian ‘minnows’ and set themselves up nicely for a final qualifying match against Slavia Prague. Champions League, here they come.


Needless to say, that script was torn up 24 hours later.


Why was it such a shock?


Celtic fans clearly believe they should be a regular Champions League club and want to mix it up with the elite of European football. Losing to a club of CFR Cluj’s pedigree has caused many a red face in the East End of Glasgow.


Cluj certainly are no Barcelona, Real Madrid or Liverpool after all!


Let’s put things into context for a minute. This time last year CFR Cluj were knocked out the Europa League by Dudelange of Luxembourg (those pesky Luxembourg teams get about, eh?) and were rated 288th in the Uefa rankings before the tie. That’s 54 places below Red Imps of Gibraltar (remember them?!) and 241 behind Celtic themselves.


To rub salt into the wounds, Aberdeen, Hearts, Hibernian and Rangers all rank higher than the Romanian club.


Here’s what you could’ve won…


The lost financial figures make grim reading for Celtic fans. Whilst they would've still had to beat Slavia Prague (a winnable tie by all means), Celtic fans will be kicking themselves at the potential earnings they’ve failed to gain.


Qualification to the Champions League provides a guaranteed £14.3 million and is further topped up by other prize money such as television share revenue, and money for drawing and winning matches in the competition. The figure being banded about in the media has been around £25 million. It’s a good thing they sold Kieran Tierney, isn’t it?!

Kieran Tierney left Celtic in the summer for £25 million.

In contrast, the Europa League qualification guarantees clubs at least £2.71 million upon qualification and significantly less money in all other areas. Hardly money to sniff your nose at but still a fraction of the figures that could be earned from the elite European tournament.


But is it really that surprising that Celtic have fallen at this hurdle?


Scotland is ranked 20th in the European league rankings, meaning its clubs have to start from the bottom to qualify for Uefa competitions. Gone are the days of automatic qualification and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for clubs from leagues like Scotland to progress.


Big names like Porto have already been dumped out and Ajax (last season’s semi-finalists) are still negotiating their route through the qualifiers. As the season’s move on, it’s going to get harder and harder for teams out with the top four leagues to qualify. Very unfair if you ask me but the big leagues are where the money and best talent lie!


Does this affect the title race?

It goes without saying that, in terms of competition, Celtic not pocketing £25 million is great news for Rangers and the other clubs in Scotland. Add to that the disruption of the Thursday – Sunday game schedule if they do qualify for the Europa League.


Just as important is the furthering realisation that Celtic are not the invincible force they have been in recent seasons. Teams with a smaller budget can beat them. Rangers achieved this on a couple of occasions at Ibrox last season and will take confidence that other teams will be able to as well. A Neil Lennon team just doesn’t have the same aura about it as one under Brendan Rodgers.

Rangers fans are hoping for their first title since 2011.

Rangers disposed of FC Midtjylland from Denmark 7-3 on aggregate last Thursday and, having just beaten Hibernian 6-1 a few days before, it already looks they've moved up a level from last season. Time will tell but the signs are positive so far.


Every season Celtic don’t qualify for the Champions League is another season Rangers can financially get closer to them (in theory of course!). Last season may have been too early for Steven Gerrard’s men but it’s expected that they’ll push on further this season (famous last words?).


Trouble in 'Paradise'


A title challenge is really not something that we’ve seen much in recent years in Scotland and the closer Celtic get to ’10 in a row’, the more both sides realise how important the title is. On Friday afternoon, the former Scottish Socialist Party leader Tommy Sheridan posted a two part ‘emotional’ rant about Neil Lennon. It may have been more akin to a mental breakdown than a logical defence of the Celtic manager, but it went to showcase the cracks that were beginning to show within the Celtic support.


Whether it’s the Board or Neil Lennon, the knives have been out over the past seven days. Was it the Board risking 10 in a row with their ‘cheap’ summer approach? Was it Lennon’s poor managerial choices? Or was it simply a mix of the two?


Two new signings Christopher Jullien and Boli Bolingoli were benched on Tuesday night, whilst Callum McGregor, arguably Celtic’s best midfielder, was played at left back. Odd decisions and Celtic then went on to lose 4 goals. It’s hardly surprising Lennon is receiving some criticism.


Following the Champions League exit, Celtic could only beat Dunfermline Athletic 2-1 at Celtic Park after extra time. The hangover continues. Have the wheels come off? Is Lennon soon for the sack? Or is it simply a temporary blip?


A storm in a teacup?


The anger has been clear to see over the last few days but let’s be honest, things will calm down soon enough. Football evokes strong impulsive reactions from fans and these feelings can change one week to the next. After having it so easy for so long there does seem to be a sense of entitlement growing at Celtic Park and a lack of realisation at the great unchallenged domestic situation they find themselves in. One or two bad results doesn’t change that.


They’re still favourites for the league, it’s been three long years since another club has won a trophy and they’re most likely going to qualify for the Europa League, a competition a host of Scottish clubs have gotten nowhere near qualifying. Kilmarnock (less said about that the better!), Aberdeen (year after year after year), Hibernian and Hearts have all failed to qualify in recent seasons.


The reality now is that Celtic are a Europa League standard club. In an age where the top four leagues in Europe have finances on a different scale to the rest, Celtic would just have been making up the numbers had they qualified for the Champions League. The Europa League is still a competition Celtic can progress in beyond Christmas.


The overreaction to one defeat has also masked the fact that Celtic have 6 points out 6 and a goal difference of +10 after easing past St. Johnstone and Motherwell in the Scottish Premiership. Again, this is a situation the majority of clubs in the league could only dream of!


Whilst many Celtic fans have been gunning for Peter Lawwell with claims he is ‘gambling’ 10 in a row by not investing, the club have still spent over £10 million in the transfer market this summer. This is more than double what Rangers have spent and several times what all the other clubs have spent too. A look on their bench will also showcase the strength and depth that exists in the squad.

Too good for Scottish football but not good enough for the Champions League. Stuck between a rock and a hard place.