Fittingly, Celtic’s incredible win against Lazio on the seventh of this month came seven years after their incredible home victory over Barcelona. Having never beaten an Italian side in their home country, manager Neil Lennon described the victory as “historic” and that it was “just behind beating Barcelona.” It’s easy to underplay the Europa league, but Lazio are performing well in Series A this season, sitting just behind the giants of Inter Milan and Juventus. Whilst there is no denying the incredible job Brendan Rodgers did as Celtic’s boss, he was fortunate in his first couple of seasons to be taking over from a low European benchmark.
For a few years, gone were the days where Celtic could shock big opponents at home. Ronny Deila, whilst fine domestically, never matched the expectation that comes with such a big club in Europe, failing to reach the Champions League group stages in either of his two seasons in charge. As such, Rodgers’ main aim was to reach the group stages, something he failed to do in his final season in charge.
Eyebrows were raised at the prospect of the green side of Glasgow continuing to fall short, and only looking like a team that simply made up the numbers rather than one who could act as genuinely tough opposition. Lennon may have initially looked the wrong appointment to achieve this in the beginning but, regardless of anyone’s thoughts, he has proven that he can still manage at a top level. It’s worth remembering that Deila did guide Celtic to the last 32 of the Europa League in his first season, but the manner in which Lennon has done it this time feels different. His side were overrun slightly in the first-half by the Italians, setting up in a 3-5-2 formation, which meant that the squad struggled to settle in what was a hostile environment. The ability to stay in the game though reminded Celtic, however, that this is where they belong.
Comparisons between the Premier League and Scottish football has often been a source of fun, mainly to the social media fan, in recent times. However, there are more similarities than people would like to admit. Whilst Manchester City may not have got off to the flying start we have come to expect, they are side by side with Liverpool when it comes to the two best teams in the league. On their day, each are head and shoulders above the rest. Similarly, Rangers and Celtic, so far ahead in the league, seem to be pushing each other on in Europe as well.
Back home in Glasgow, the same night Celtic took on Lazio, arch-rivals Rangers were taking on Porto. Anyone wanting to scrutinise the stature of these wins or willing to throw out the classic “It’s only the Europa league” should remember that the Portuguese outfit were champions league quarter-finalists, only dispatched by the eventual winners of the competition in Liverpool. The strangest thing about the home result was that Rangers were not even at their best. It’s an old cliché for any coach to say it’s important to win those games; it’s a different prospect to say it against a team with far more European know-how than Gerrard’s side. They somewhat looked like they were punching slightly above their weight last year, although that should not deter from some good performances.
The beating of Rapid Vienna 3-1 as well as a hard-fought 2-2 draw away in Villareal showed there were signs of promise. Despite not losing at home though, two of the games petered out to rather dull 0-0 affairs and games which Rangers should have taken three points from. Of course, there is still no guarantees of the sides qualification to the next round. It also wouldn’t be the end of the world if they did not, but the fact that it has now become an expectation rather than a dream shows the change in mentality that has come about as a result of the culture Gerrard has implemented since his arrival. He was a serial winner as a player and looks no different as a manager.
So, why isn’t this reflected in our nations international performance? The simple answer is that there aren’t a huge number of Scottish players still eligible for the national team – a problem that goes back to our youth football set-up. Allan McGregor and Scott Brown have both retired from national duties, which leaves only James Forrest and Callum McGregor of Celtic, and Ryan Jack of Rangers who are in with a serious chance of representing their country.
Albeit Steve Clarke is still settling into the job and there is still hope of qualifying for the European championships via the nations league play-offs. That being said, should he choose not to pick Ryan Jack, Clarke could fall into the trap of picking players on merit rather than form. Scott McTominay, without denying his ability, is not in the form that Jack is in and, simply because he plays for Manchester United, this should not automatically secure him a place. Similarly, James Forrest, who has already stepped up for Scotland in the Nations league, should be a guaranteed start. Back at a club level, star strikers Alfredo Morelos and Odsonne Edouard look like they might head to bigger and better things eventually. It’s reminiscent of when top players used to come to Rangers and Celtic and were sought after by Premier League clubs. In particular, the former has already netted 22 goals this season, eleven of those coming in European football. He’s playing like a man who does not look like he’ll be spending much more time in Scotland.
Scotland’s co-efficient is now at its highest for five years, with the nation sitting just one place away from two champions league places come the 2021/22 season. With the belief, support and managerial intelligence that marks each side right now, there’s no reason why Lennon’s side, or Gerrard’s should they progress, cannot go deeper into the competition. The Old Firm splits opinion in Scotland but right now there is no denying they are at the top of their game. Hopefully, they are there to stay.