Scottish football’s cold harsh winter in Europe

Barcelona v Celtic

Barcelona v Celtic in the Champions League Photo: Marc Puig i Perez http://www.flickr.com

Celtic’s rather dismal failure to qualify for the Champions League group stage has heaped pressure on manager Ronny Deila and prompted the now annual round of introspection in the Scottish game that follows such results.

The Scottish champions were careless in the first leg against Malmo and, by their own admission, scarcely turned up in the second. Deila suggested that his players underperformed on account of “wanting it too much.” Scott Brown admitted to being “ashamed” afterwards; an honest assessment from an honest player.

So, just how bad have we become in Europe? The honest truth is that the performance of most Scottish clubs in European competition has been less than impressive for quite a long time now and not much has changed this season.

St Johnstone lost to a team from Armenia (that’s quite shameful since Armenia are ranked 24 places below Scotland in UEFA’s coefficient rankings). Inverness Caley lost to Romanian opponents (a lot less shameful than St Johnstone’s effort since Romania are ranked nine places above us). Aberdeen deserve some credit for a decent run (including an excellent victory over my Croatian team, Rijeka)  but still passed up a good opportunity to reach the Europa League group stage by losing to a side from Kazakhstan (Kazakhstan currently sit just three places below us in the rankings).

The problems of Scottish football are well documented and there are no quick or easy fixes. Our current coefficient ranking is 24th out of 54 UEFA member organisations. That’s an interesting ranking, not least because next year’s European Championships will be contested by 24 nations for the first time. The coefficient ranking is based on the performance of club sides in European competition and it gives a good overall indication of the state of the game across Europe. We probably are around the 24th best footballing nation in Europe right now.

Will we therefore be one of the 24 qualifiers for Euro 2016 in France? Things were looking very positive on that front until Friday night’s inept display in Georgia. To be fair, it was the first such display under Gordon Strachan. Prior to that game, he was rightly raking in plaudits for the job he’s done as Scotland boss.

He didn’t initiate a revolution; he stuck by a core group of players that he trusts, gave them some confidence, added a dash of freedom to express themselves and we seemed at long last to find ourselves competitive in a qualifying group (and a pretty tough group at that).

I’ve looked at the last three rounds of fixtures in the group, starting with tonight’s game against Germany at Hampden, and predicted the results of all the teams still in with a chance of qualifying. By my estimates, Germany will comfortably finish top with Poland in second place while we will finish the group in third place, just marginally ahead of the Republic of Ireland. If I’m right, then a play-off would then await.

I’m predicting a 2-0 win for Germany tonight and partly for that reason I’m not intending to get up at 2:45am to watch the game. Nothing will be decided tonight, but with three qualifying games to go we are definitely entering what Sir Alex would refer to as ‘squeaky bum time.’ And trust me, bums don’t come much squeakier than those of the tartan army. If we can somehow squeak a point, I’ll be delighted with that.

Overall, Strachan has shown that solid (even, at times, entertaining) performances can be coached out of our current squad. His coaching ability is the single biggest difference that has made us more competitive in this qualifying campaign compared to almost any other in recent memory, at least since the famous double victory over France in our ultimately failed bid to reach Euro 2008.

Coaches are important then but the stark fact remains that we need better players, both in the national side and in our top club sides. Wales are on course to qualify for Euro 2016 thanks, in large part, to having a world class player in Gareth Bale leading their attack. Developing such players will take time, investment, and cultural change – all things we’ve known for a long time.

One thing that might also help would be a switch to summer football in Scotland, something that’s been much discussed but never gained too much momentum. I used to be a sceptic but I’ve changed my mind since I left Scotland to live in the tropics. I now go back once a year and in the last couple of years it has been for Christmas. I always go to a game when I’m back. At that time of year, it’s always freezing, usually wet, and the pitches look like beaches (but not of the tropical variety).

Those are not great conditions to play football in and they are not good conditions to watch football in either. So, buckets and spades at the ready, I’m advocating summer football in Scotland. Traditionalists be reassured, we won’t notice that much difference since “summer” in Scotland tends towards the cold and the wet anyway.

Summer football won’t happen in Scotland any time soon but let’s hope that at least some Scottish players are playing football next summer – in France.

Advertisements

Out of their league

Europa League. Photo by Jack Tanner www.flickr.com

Europa League. Photo by Jack Tanner
http://www.flickr.com

Last week was a bad one for English clubs in Europe. Manchester City were given another lesson by Barcelona while Arsenal showed how many lessons they still need to learn as they went down to an abject defeat to Monaco. Arsene Wenger is known as ‘The Professor’ but his players appear to have been skipping European studies class. After almost 20 years in charge at Arsenal, Wenger appears to be a tenured professor but the defeat to Monaco may be the one that changes the board’s thinking.

The Europa League is often regarded as a bit of a consolation prize for teams dropping out of the Champions League but it did not provide much consolation for Liverpool as they proved not up to the task in Besiktas. Tottenham fell to Fiorentina to leave Everton as the only remaining English (indeed British) representatives in the Europa League.

Rodgers opted to rest Coutinho in Turkey and Pochettino left Harry Kane on the bench in Italy. Like Liverpool’s Brazilian playmaker, priorities remained on British soil. Liverpool in particular though should still have had enough quality to progress.

The Premier League is much hyped (and I include myself in that having written a previous post proclaiming the Premier League as the best in the world) but the quality doesn’t always justify it. Teams such as Liverpool and Spurs, competing for a top four finish in the Premier League, should be winning in the last 32 of the Europa League.

Brendan Rodgers was asked after the game if he felt that losing might be a bit of blessing in disguise. He replied: “Yeah. At the time, you don’t like to say that, because we want to win. And Europe this season has been an experience for us, both in the Champions League and the Europa League. But we’re at a different stage to a lot of other teams. A lot of our young players have gained invaluable experience in Europe this year, and they’re going to be better for it.”

It might have been even better for them to gain an additional round or two of experience. Liverpool’s team is full of experienced internationals so it’s a bit rich to claim that they’re at a ‘different stage’ to many others. Well, it is true I suppose that 16 teams are at a different, that is to say later, stage in the tournament than Liverpool.

There’s no question that Rodgers treated the tournament as an exercise in experience and it’s turned out to be a far from fruitful one. Overall, Liverpool’s performances in Europe this season, in both the Champions League and the Europa League, have been very poor. An excellent win against Manchester City yesterday still doesn’t justify the attitude displayed to European failure.

Liverpool will not win the Premier League this season, although they do still have the chance to claim silverware in the FA Cup. Re-qualifying for the Champions League is the priority, but what then? Will the recent ‘invaluable experience’ that the players have collected alongside stamps in their passports make Liverpool Champions League contenders next season? I suspect not.

After a very slow start to the season, Liverpool have scrambled back into contention for a top four finish – I think the battle is between them and Arsenal and expect the current top three will occupy the same positions at the end of the season. But even if Liverpool manage to finish fourth they would have to play a qualifying round to get into the Champions League group phase just as Arsenal did this season. Who did the Gunners beat to qualify? Besiktas. 1-0 over two legs.

It’s one thing for Rodgers to treat a trip to the Bernabeu in Madrid as an exercise in experience building, as he did in November, but it’s quite another to travel to Istanbul with the same mentality. The Liverpool boss should look instead to another side in the Spanish capital – Atletico Madrid.

Atletico won the Europa League in 2011/12 and finished fifth in La Liga. Two years later, they were Champions League finalists and La Liga champions. Lessons learned. A winning habit was formed in the side and the players believed that they could compete with Europe’s best.

Brendan Rodger’s wants the same for his side but to achieve it he should start taking tournaments such as the Europa League more seriously. Liverpool went back to league business yesterday and won, but in Europe this season they’ve looked decidedly out of their league.

Celtic progress without making much progress in Europe

Celtic Park. Photo by: Brian Hargadon www.flickr.com

Celtic Park. Photo by: Brian Hargadon
http://www.flickr.com

Congratulations to Celtic for qualifying from the group stage of the Europa League and ensuring that there will be European football in Scotland after Christmas this season. The Scottish champions went through despite a 3-1 loss to Salzburg last night with Astra beating Dinamo Zagreb in the other game in the group.

Pleased though they will be to go through, the defeat to Salzburg seems to me like a pretty accurate reflection of where Celtic are right now in European terms. I didn’t see the game but assuming the Austrian’s victory was as comfortable as the score line suggests then I wouldn’t expect Celtic’s current European adventure to last very much longer.

Looking at the starting line up from last night there’s definitely a lack of quality in the team and in the squad. Craig Gordon remains an outstanding goalkeeper on his day and still belongs on the European stage; Van Dijk is a very accomplished central defender and has a long list of suitors; Scott Brown and Charlie Mulgrew have both starred of late for Scotland; but overall there is a lack of the sort of player who can really make the difference at the highest level (or indeed the level of the Europa League).

In contrast to some clubs (naming no names), Celtic have been very prudently run over quite a considerable period of time. The board have made sound financial decisions but there’s no doubt that there’s been slow and steady erosion in the quality of player at Celtic. Neil Lennon’s departure as manager was a sure sign that he didn’t feel the club could continue to compete at the same level that they had in recent years.

Lennon and his side probably slightly overachieved in the Champions League when they qualified for the knock out stages and the squad at Parkhead now resembles an ok but not great Europa League one. Exactly the sort of squad that might lose comfortably to Salzburg and the Austrians are far from the strongest side left in the tournament.

Transfer windows have brought little cheer to Celtic fans of late and they must anticipate January with some trepidation again. When was the last time that Celtic’s squad was stronger at the end of a transfer window than at the beginning? I doubt it will be strengthened this January but it may again be weakened.

While we’re on the subject of the Europa League, let me pay tribute to the heroic exploits of my Croatian team Rijeka. Rijeka is my wife’s home city and I’m a regular visitor. I always try to go to Rijeka games if they’re playing while I’m there. Their stadium, Kantrida, cut into a rock and perched on the edge of the Adriatic Sea is simply one of the most beautiful places to watch the beautiful game that I’ve ever seen.

Last night Rijeka beat Standard Liege 2-0 to keep their qualifications hopes alive in a tough group that includes Sevilla and Feyenoord. Star striker Kramaric is attracting a lot of attention and so sadly I fear that if they do qualify their squad may be weaker by the time the knock out stages start. But anyway, Forza Fiume.