Setting New Standards

Celtic is a club engulfed in crisis after the shock defeat to Malmo in this week’s Champions League qualifier.

That is if you believe some of the hype on social and even mainstream media since Ronnie Deila’s men crashed out into the Europa League.

Much of the reaction has been predictable and even to an extent, understandable. Celtic fans want to see their team play in Europe’s elite competition and those concerned with the club’s fiscals will certainly be disappointed that the coveted European pot, which is a potential reward for the champions of Scotland, is now halved. That said, the reported £8 million Celtic can expect to land is a decent cushion to fall upon after the stormy exit from the Champions League.

As I wrote yesterday, the Champions League is a big ask for Scottish clubs in this day and age – even more so than before. Both Old Firm clubs have managed the final of the lesser competition in recent times and that is frankly the level they have been at for years, occasional CL victories notwithstanding. Taking this into consideration, the real test of Ronnie Deila’s managerial prowess can only justly be measured on how Celtic progress in the Europa League. A decent run is job well done, while a poor show would arguably make the case for a new manager.

The same standards apply to Mark Warburton should he steer Rangers to Premiership success. Like his counterpart across the city, Warburton would be unfairly judged should he be unable to take Rangers to the Promised Land of the Champions League. There is, of course, nothing wrong with Old Firm fans dreaming of such achievements and equally nothing wrong in the boards of both clubs aspiring to them. The problem is when failure to reach the group stage of Europe’s most prestigious tournament – yes, even perenially – means that managers are classed as losers.

The priority for both Rangers and Celtic is to win their domestic title and have a decent run in Europe, with the Europa League as a very acceptable standard. Some might see this as lacking ambition but the price of being ambitious in reference to the CL is crippling – as proved by Rangers’ recent years of torment. It could be argued that Celtic’s level of debt is also very worrying and that they have also over the years fallen for the lure of riches in Europe at the expense of prudent fiscal economy. The conundrum every year for the Parkhead board is how much do they venture to try and get into the group stages, knowing that failure means they will be saddled with players on expensive wages and who are disgruntled at playing in Scotland’s football backwater.

Setting realistic goals and creating decent expectations is the answer to the all-or-nothing dice roll of the Champions League. This includes disabusing the preposterous notion that the Europa League is a very poor second prize. In reality, it is a decent competition most years and an enormous achievement in the winning. It is still a level that stretches and challenges and is the ideal tournament for the SPFL Premiership winners.

As for Celtic having a crisis? You are having a laugh. The stushie over their CL exit will galvanise them, not throw them into disarray Deila now has something to prove again, which means he will apply himself much more vigorously to the job at hand. Celtic are still by far the strongest side in Scotland and, although downsizing has been clearly evident in a systematic way over the course at Celtic Park, Deila has proved quite astute in picking players who can keep the edge very much in the Parkhead club’s favour. Off-field troubles like an investigation by Audit Scotland might be bubbling away in the background but anyone who thinks this week’s defeat to Malmo heralds an imminent disintegration of Celtic’s dominance needs their head examined.

The exciting thing is that across the Clyde, Mark Warburton has revitalised Rangers and turned them into a hurricane force that is sweeping all in its path. The real test of this new Rangers will be how they fare against Premiership opposition. Should Rangers encounter their bitter rivals in a cup competition and “do a Malmo” on them, that will cause an earhquake far bigger than any tremors generated by the result in Sweden.

Losing out on Europe’s big pot of gold for a smaller one will not cost Ronnie Deila his job – nor should it. But losing to the club across the city is a whole different matter as it would mean a possible shift in power. For this reason Ronnie Deila must concentrate on domestic dominance as his number one priority.

The fact is that for all the disappointment at losing out on the group stages, the real cause for concern for Celtic is that after this year, the somewhat easy path to Europe they have been enjoying might become a much more bumpy one.

A rampant, revitalised Rangers might not be an exciting prospect for Ronnie Deila and all at Celtic. But Scottish football sure could use some real competition in its top flight.

Competition makes good teams stronger. And that can only help the Scottish game in respect of taking part in European tournaments.

There is no crisis at Parkhead right now. But one could be looming if the hurricane across the city gets any stronger. Scottish football needs a strong Rangers and a strong Celtic. The old bruising encounters between the two for silverware and bragging rights have been missing from the game.The way things are going, we might be quite close to resuming normal service once more.

You have to say that right now Celtic rule the roost in Scottish football. But the prospect of this changing due to Mark Warburton’s Rangers Revolution is more potentially damaging to Celtic’s European aspirations than Tuesday night’s result.

Whether Celtic maintain their superiority or Rangers overturn it, one thing is for sure. Without a serious injection of funding into our game, Rangers and Celtic both must face the truth – they are no longer top table teams in Europe’s elite banquet.

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