I do not believe for one minute that they did not deserve to be there. Their efforts in qualifying and in the group stages were heroic and will long live in the memory of those of us who saw them, but I remain convinced that we rode our luck in those games, played to the best of our abilities and reaped a fantastic reward as a consequence. Where I have a difficulty, is in agreeing with those who felt that we were well placed to defeat a team of Juventus’ calibre over two legs.
I did not anticipate such a disastrous outcome as we saw last night, but in my heart of hearts I expected that we would not be in the competition after the second leg. For that to happen we would have had to play at the very height of our abilities and hope that they would have been well below their optimum performance level.
It hardly needs to be said that a fair and competent performance by the match officials would also have been part of our ideal recipe. None of these ingredients were in evidence last night, and in the event it was always going to be an uphill struggle.
I happen to agree with Harry Brady, that in parts during last night we played the best football of the season, but to succeed on that stage required players of a level above those currently wearing the Hoops. We have good players and players with unlimited potential but we have no great players at this point in time. Success in the knock-out phase of the Champions League requires at least two or three players who have moved beyond potential, and have the experience that the likes of Pirlo and Buffon brought to the table in last night’s game.
I listened to the BBC post match analysis and while I sensed that Murdo McLeod was actually slightly enjoying detailing our weaknesses, I felt that Owen Coyle spoke more in sorrow than in anger, and while he was clearly saddened by the result, his description of the Juventus method, structure and game plan was quite forensic and his appreciation of how they played was fascinating.
Neil, in his after the match comments suggested that for 70 minutes Pirlo et al had contributed little and that Celtic were the better team, but I feel he spoke in after the match mode, and that when he reflects he will recall that the match lasted for 90+ minutes and that the Italians were quite surgical in their disembowelling of a tiring side in the latter stages – a process to which Pirlo was key.
It is my belief that Celtic are a Europa league team with aspirations to be better. The squad is relatively large but the depth of quality required for competition at the highest level is lacking.
It is interesting that we depend so much on Georgios Samaras and clearly his absence last night was felt, but while I love our Greek Adonis and have defended him rigorously in the past, if he were a truly great player he would not have found his way to Celtic Park. Georgios is a riddle wrapped in an enigma – so much talent and yet so often so little product. At his best he is wonderful, but he is unreliable, not through lack of effort, but simply because he is what he is.
Efe Ambrose is another with great talent, but his performances this season have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. In some games he has been inspirational in others I have shaken my head at how careless and lackadaisical he can be when not fully focussed. His decision to play against Juventus will haunt him – which of us would not have given our eye teeth for such an opportunity – but in the circumstances it was a poor decision by both manager and player and was always likely to prove so. Had he played the final in a city which would have permitted him to be back in his bed in Glasgow for Monday morning it might have been different, but to be flying such a distance and arriving in the city by mid-day on the day of the game was asking too much.
Kelvin Wilson has never convinced me that he is as good a player as the manager appears to think he is. He is decent and can play well but he is no Bobby Moore or John Clark when it comes to reading a game and is not the most robust defender in the world. Of all our defenders I feel he is the one most likely to be posted missing, because the art of defending requires more than simple athleticism and this sense of the game is where I feel he is lacking.
The diamonds in the crown are Hooper, Wanyama and Forster. They are capable of brilliance and are, each in his own way, match winners but Hooper is dependent on service to do his thing and the goalkeeper is entitled to expect a degree of protection even though he is the last line. Wanyama looks the real deal but he lacks the experience to carry a team although I expect this to come in time. That the average age of the team is relatively low means that when we hit a sticky patch, we lack the experience to patch and mend and to cover for our shortcomings.
I have heard Bertie Auld and others talk about the great team of the ’60’s and one of their strengths, he felt, was the ability to see where one or more colleagues were struggling in a game and adapt to this development. This comes with experience and with playing together over time. We have a young team with mostly young and relatively inexperienced players at the highest level of the game. Hopefully this characteristic will come in time but it is not yet a feature of the side.
It is easy to go through the team and identify faults. Every player they say has weaknesses, but the great players have learned to mask or minimise those areas which might render them vulnerable, often to the point where it is hard to discern any weakness at all. Henrik was such a player, but there are few Henriks about and even he would probably be beyond our price range in this modern age.
Harry Brady was taken to task on Twitter recently for daring to complain about aspects of our play and performances – he talked about it on a recent podcast. Any suggestion that the team did not perform brought howls of derision and accusations that he was wishing the removal of the manager. He is capable of defending himself, but my reason for recalling this is to suggest that the manage is not above criticism.
He is de facto a young manager and like many of his players is brimming with potential, but like his players he is not the finished article. There is a piece in the Guardian today (13th February) about Sir Alex Ferguson which outlines the steep learning experience that he had to endure as manager of Manchester United as his club struggled to come to terms with the Champions League. What the article fails to point out is that before he ever took United to the Champions League, he had twice won the European Cup Winners Cup and was no novice when it came to European competition, but the gaps in his knowledge were still there.
In managerial terms Neil Lennon is a novice – i.e. he is learning his trade, and he is doing so in one of the biggest goldfish bowls in world football. He appears to be a quick learner and his teams have performed creditably in the last two years, but he is far from the heights that his ambitions for the team aspire to.
In a reply to a tweet from Arsene Parcelie last night after the game I suggested that we still lack a lock-picker – a hobby horse of mine I know – but no less true for my obsession with the subject. I believe that at domestic level we have one par excellence in Paddy McCourt, but he appears not to have the manager’s faith – although when I hear commentators and pundits waxing about how impossible they find him to play against – I wonder what he has to do to earn Neil’s trust.
I would not suggest that at the Champions league Paddy is the answer although when you see the time that continental defences give players in the mid-field I do wonder sometimes what he might do, but the players who can bring this added value – the capacity to unlock such a team as Juventus were for much of the game last night before we ran out of steam – are hard to find and when they are found are more prized than gold.
I had some hope that Dylan McGeoch might be such a player when I watched him in the youth side, but his appearances for the first team have been limited by injury and by the manager’s tendency to choose what he sees as tried and trusted – the same reason I imagine that deems Anthony Stokes a fringe player for much of the time and certainly in big games.
It seems almost axiomatic that if we are to find such a player he will have to come through the youths or be an undiscovered nugget from a distant land. As far as the youths are concerned I wrote a piece for this site a couple of years ago having watched them, and suggested that while they brimmed with efficiency and organisation – almost a template of a modern football team – there was no genius in evidence.
While we have discovered some nice uncut stones in recent years the real diamonds are still being picked up by the big clubs of Spain, France, Germany and the Premiership. Another problem we face is that when we cut and polish the ones we do find, like Ki, Hooper and Victor somebody richer lusts after them.
If we are honest the Champions league is a cartel in which the richest clubs become richer. The difference in earnings between the Champions League and the Europa League is huge. I suggested above that we are a Europa League team with aspirations to be better, but paradoxically we can only achieve this by being in the Champions League, and our national co-efficient means that the odds are stacked against us for the foreseeable future.
If the money available to the Europa League and the Champions League was distributed on a more equitable basis a team like Celtic could – in time – aspire to be a regular in the big competition. Our domestic income is risible in comparison with our contenders in the bigger leagues, but we need to play in the Champions League if we are ever to match them on the pitch, or off in terms of keeping our players.
Last night, I believe, showed us where we really are in terms of our status as a club, and our development as a team. It did not leave me down hearted or dispirited as defeats have in the past. We gave it a real go and were punished for basic errors and a certain naivety. This team and the manager have done well this season and it has been thrilling. Their focus must now be on repairing their reputation after last night by doing as well as they can in Italy – on winning the double and on qualifying for next season’s European campaign whether in the Champions League or the Europa League – just make sure that we are in one of them and have more great mid-weeks to look forward to.