Sunday 25 February 2018

Daniel McDonnell: Celtic have won their cup finals, but group stage the ceiling for Champions League hopes

Former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers may now benefit from a defeat for his former club. Photo: Jeff Holmes/PA Wire
Former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers may now benefit from a defeat for his former club. Photo: Jeff Holmes/PA Wire
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The sloppy nature of the second-leg display should not disguise what Celtic achieved in Kazakhstan last night.

Champions League qualification means so much to the SPL champions that Brendan Rodgers finds himself in the bizarre position where the most important six games of his season take place before September.

Granted, their impeccable domestic performances last term delivered plenty of joy to fans.

But it's the money for making the group stages of Europe's premier competition that helps Celtic function in an era where their league is incapable of generating serious funds through any kind of television deal.

In 2008, the ill-fated Setanta was willing to shell out £31m a season for the rights to Scotland's top flight.

Local reports claim that the current deal with Sky and BT Sport amounts to £19m per season with highlights and foreign rights on top of that. The bulk of that cash is spread out amongst the top 12 clubs. In that context, Celtic's cut is small.

Celtic’s Scott Sinclair. Photo: Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters
Celtic’s Scott Sinclair. Photo: Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

Compare that to the £1.71 billion deal that Sky and BT Sport are paying for Premier League coverage. It's another world.

Therefore, the European dosh is vital. Making the group stages last year was worth £26m to Celtic before ancillary benefits were factored in. It contributed to a revenue increase of 94.7pc for the first six months of their financial year.

In February of this year, they confirmed that their pre-tax profit was £18.6m which was a considerable increase on 12 months earlier where they only qualified for the Europa League group phase. Not making either would be catastrophic.

So these are pressure games and other managers have struggled with them. Rodgers has got the hang of it. Linfield was a handy start to this run, while their struggles with Rosenborg look slightly better in hindsight. The Norwegian champions won away to Ajax last Thursday to move within 90 minutes of the Europa League group stages.

In these pages before, we've spoken about the dangers of applying collateral form to football, but the fact that Rosenborg have shown themselves to be decent is of little comfort to a Dundalk squad watching from afar that wanted their crack at Celtic.

Meeting sides midway through their season is the hardest part for Rodgers' but his men got the job done in Trondheim and handed a first-leg bashing to an Astana side they scraped past in 2016. Emerging powers in oil-rich nations are becoming a growing influence in the 'champions' section that allows Celtic a route to the top table even though they would much prefer a scenario which actually gave them a proper off-season.

To be adequately prepared, they have to return to the training pitch in June which adds another layer of complications.

But what happens now? Barring a shock defeat for Liverpool tonight, Celtic will be in Pot 4 for Friday's draw.

This means they could, for example, end up with a group that includes Real Madrid, PSG and Spurs. Last year, they drew Barcelona, Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach and won zero from six despite putting in some excellent displays. Barcelona and City's spending power is well documented but, according to Rodgers, Borussia's annual budget is £100m bigger than the Glasgow operation.

It will be extremely hard for them to break through that ceiling from their current post, with Rodgers doing his best to mould a force while stymied by the fact that their bread and butter is miles off the elite.

St Johnstone and Rangers went out in the first qualifying round of the Europa League this year while their closest pursuers Aberdeen made it through one round of the competition. Celtic's performances do actually earn their SPL counterparts a solidarity payment from UEFA and they need that six-figure boost badly.

But it cannot help them to bridge the gap between themselves and Celtic and offer a sterner test on a weekly basis. The Hoops' dominance over the pack may be enjoyable for their followers, but it's not enjoyable for too many others and the value of the TV deal reflects that.

Celtic do have some excellent players. Moussa Dembele will eventually go for big money, Stuart Armstrong is a fine midfield player and the ability of the Scotts - Sinclair and Brown - is well known.

But they are playing in a division that's competing for players in League One and League Two. League One is where some of Celtic's fringe performers have relocated to.

Placed in that context, Rodgers has done extremely well to ease through a sticky phase of qualifying.

However, it would be unrealistic to expect them to emerge from the group stage.

The percentage call is that they will suffer some difficult evenings; there is no shame in that given where they are coming from.

A third-place finish and parachute into Europa League would be an excellent outcome.

They will not be able to threaten the elite without engaging in spending that would be hard to justify unless Qatar come in as sponsors.

Whatever happens, they know their season will end with trophies. But they have already prevailed in their most important cup finals.

Irish Independent

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