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Celtic in Europe: becoming negative may prove positive

European performances continue to suffer, will the penny drop for Brendan Rodgers to change his approach?

As the curtain drew on another insipid European performance in Leipzig, Celtic fans have got to begin to wonder what the next step is for them on the continent. Their support is fantastic, their squad is decent – but their performances are not.

Double-treble winner Brendan Rodgers has now managed Celtic in 19 European away games, winning just four and coming away with a lowly four clean sheets. Celtic’s current Europa League campaign hangs by a thread, with the fans holding little hope that their teams will overcome their poor start to secure a last 32 spot after Christmas. So, what next?

Rodgers’ objectives were clear when he took the job in the summer of 2016; to take Celtic to the next level. What is ‘the next level’ some of you may ask? Many Celtic fans picture that as knockout football in Europe’s premier competition, something they have managed only once in the last eight years.

Winning the domestic honours were a given for Rodgers, an expectation that was never in any doubt with his predecessors winning the previous five league titles. However, the former Liverpool coach took to Scottish football in emphatic style; leading Celtic to an unprecedented invincible season and securing two consecutive trebles in his first two years. The man has won everything there is to win and is undoubtedly one of the finest managers of modern times in Scotland – yet, there still seems to be a missing piece of the puzzle for the Parkhead faithful.

With last night’s defeat to Germany’s RB Leipzig, Celtic now have just two wins in their last nine travels in European competition. With the squad hit with numerous injuries, last night’s result to one of Germany’s top sides could be forgiven. However, it is the manner of many of these losses that doesn’t sit easy with Celtic fans. For all Rodgers’ praise, he deserves criticism when it comes to his sides European escapades.

The manager is well renowned for his fluid attacking systems and ability to dominate a game from a tactical perspective. His team have swept aside all of their domestic rivals for the past seven years, with Rodgers’ credited to the rejuvenated form of key players such as Scott Brown and James Forrest. However, this progressive approach fails to have the same effect in continental competition – particularly away from home. It is fair to say – despite an exciting and competitive start to the Ladbrokes Premiership season – that Celtic’s league opponents will not carry the same threat as many of their European opponents, however there have been instances where Celtic’s defensive frailties have been exposed.

With Celtic by far the strongest team in the league, their league opponents are not expected to take the game to Rodgers’ men, neither home nor away. To get a result, teams often result to sitting in and soaking the pressure of a highly clinical attack. Yet, when teams – namely Hearts and Kilmarnock – decide to mix this up and attack on the front foot, the Celtic defence don’t seem to be prepared to cope with the pressure. This season Celtic have lost to both Hearts and Kilmarnock on their travels, currently sitting six points behind the former in second.

This sort of pressure has really exposed Celtic in European competition, with a defence, who are currently on their bare bones, leaking 38 goals in their past 19 away games, including 7-0 hammerings in Paris and Barcelona. It is no secret that the fans and manager alike have been frustrated with the lack of investment in the team, mainly their inability to identify defenders – however, Rodgers past record shows that it is no coincidence that this Celtic team continue to struggle.

The club brought in highly rated Filip Benkovic to help beef up the defence after the public fall-out with Dedryk Boyata exposed the boardroom unrest at the club. This was a welcomed addition, with performances of centre-back pairing Jack Hendry and Jozo Simunovic continuing to falter. Yet, the signing of the impressive Benkovic is not enough, with the ageing Mikael Lustig remaining to the frustration of the fans. Chief scout Lee Congerton was brought in from Sunderland to help find gems like Victor Wanyama, Virgil Van Dijk and Moussa Dembele like the club had done in the past; but he is yet to prove any sort of worth to the club.

Aside from the recruitment, the performances have been equally poor. It can’t be a coincidence that the clubs defenders continue to make costly individual errors on a regular basis, akin to Liverpool’s defence of Rodgers reign. When Liverpool returned to the UEFA Champions League after a four year absence in 2014, they were expected to progress from a group that included Basel, Real Madrid and Ludogretz. That campaign quickly turned sour with the club finishing third and exiting in to the Europa League. Liverpool finished 2014-15 with eight games played in Europe, two victories, four losses and ten goals conceded. A damning statistic.

We can’t forget that of course that this is a manager that was within inches of winning the Premier League, but also a man that was eventually sacked for his stubbornness to a system that would leak goals and prove costly in Europe and thereafter in league form. Not for one second should there be a suggestion that Rodgers’ job is unsafe at Parkhead, however there should be a wake up call that there is a time and a place to play on the front foot.

This season it has became too late for the penny to drop and Celtic are sure to eventually overhaul their defence in order to address this – but the focus should also be on the preparation of the defenders rather than the individuals alone. Celtic fans can not possibly complain of a financial gulf, when their own side has enjoyed the leisure of strolling to each of their last seven titles. Moreover, results in Europe are possible with limited resources, they only need to look to their city rivals to see that.

As aptly put by BBC Scotland’s chief sports writer Tom English; “When you're playing against Barcelona or PSG or Bayern Munich, that's fair enough. But now they're losing to lesser opposition and that's got to be worrying”.

The team have no problem putting on a show when it comes to a famous night under the lights at home, but something has to give on their travels or the 'next level' may be seen as a step too far.

Published 26/10/2018