In earlier musings on the relationship between the two main Glasgow clubs I have speculated on the number of times during recent years that an opportunity presented itself for Celtic to leave the cesspool of the West of Scotland behind and to identify new rivals, higher standards, broader horizons – in effect to set themselves a new bench mark.

My argument was not based on any daft notion that we should up-stakes and move to another league – no matter how much we might wish that this were possible.  Rather that we should have viewed the Scottish experience as the qualifying exam for the bigger stage of Europe. 

At the time my example was taken from the EPL and I suggested that in real terms Manchester United’s biggest rivals were not City, no more than Arsenal’s were Tottenham or Everton Liverpool’s.  As I saw it at the time these clubs’ new rivals were domestically each other, but on a wider platform the great European clubs such a Barcelona, Real Madrid, The two Milan Clubs and the German giants.  As I saw it the big table was Europe and this was the level to which these big clubs aspired.

Since then of course the financial structure of the English game has become so distorted that Chelsea and Man City have bought themselves seats at the big table and even clubs like Liverpool and Arsenal have found it hard to compete with their spending power. 

In Celtic’s case however as we now know, our own obsession – worthy though it is – with financial stability and good fiscal management allowed our rivals to keep pace with us when many felt that we might have speculated a bit to ensure dominance over our competitors.  That they only managed to keep step with Celtic by engaging in fraud, deception and cheating on a hitherto unimagined scale has now brought us to the very pass that I envisaged.  They are – for the present at least – no longer on our radar as rivals and our access to Europe over the coming years offers an opportunity to take that step and to identify new and more worthy competitors in the European arena.

In this adventure we are still at a fledgling stage – still testing our wings so to speak, and accordingly we need  to develop and grow before we can fly with confidence.  
In every playground there is a pecking order and at this time in the Champions League we are not close to the top.  That we are even there is a measure of how well Neil Lennon’s team is developing and we have a group of players with massive potential given the relative cost compared to the teams with whom we must compete, but it would be foolish to predict with any certainty how this group will pan out at the half way stage.

The motivation for these musings came from a conversation on Twitter the other night between a number of Tims and from a subsequent blog written by Celtic Underground contributor Antony Murray entitled : ‘Who is the Tims’ Tebow?

In this piece Antony returns to a favourite theme – that of Samaras bashing, and to a degree I can understand his frustration with the gorgeous Greek.  Samaras will always frustrate, but I believe that many Celtic fans have become accepting of this fact, given that he does do a lot for the team and can on his day be an outright match winner.  I can also empathise with Antony’s frustration in the Twitter debate that a team who can pass sides to death in a domestic context should apparently be incapable of retaining possession for any length of time when asked to step up to a higher level.

I attempted to point out that even gifted amateur footballers can be rendered ineffectual when confronted by professionals and even good pro’s can be outclassed when playing against superior players.

It was Antony Murray’s second last paragraph however which prompted this response.  In it he compares Georgios contribution with Iniesta’s and in a sense reduces his argument to absurdity.

Iniesta – with Messi and Xavi are literally in a class by themselves.  I have no doubt that the total dominance which they exerted over our midfield is repeated not only every week in La Liga, but I imagine every day in training against their own team mates at the Nou Campe. 

Without these three magicians Barca would be a fine European Champions League team, but would they be serial winners ?  I doubt it. 

Their presence allows their team mates to play with a confidence and style that typifies the greatest sides, but they play in this manner because at the heart of the team are the three best players in the world at this time.

Yes I know that much of what Iniesta does looks simple  and that his decision making is a key element of that, but he also has options that Hooper and Samaras were denied for much of Tuesday’s match.  They are asked to feed off the scraps, while Barca’s players gorged themselves in possession.

An example of this came in the first half just before Celtic scored.  Joe Ledley broke clear with two allies against two defenders and made a very poor pass wasting a glorious opportunity to close in on the Catalan goal.  We remember that because it was the only such chance to present itself up to that point.  Barcelona, for all their mesmeric pressure, lost possession many times during the game, but such was their dominance they soon won it back.  Our chances were few and far between.

What is clear to me however is that this is all part of the learning experience for our players – who were – I am informed – the youngest team in the competition the other night. Despite being under such pressure for so long they  looked more compact and more disciplined that any Celtic team I have seen in such circumstances for many years. If they do learn, and do progress in the coming weeks, and are still in Europe after Christmas then it will be because the bench mark has been raised by playing in such exalted company.

For Celtic Barcelona must be the bench mark – if they perform even close to that level then lesser teams should hold no fear.


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