All The Threes

Group B of the Champions League this season has very much been a “them” and “us” situation. In almost every other group there hasn’t been the same disparity between the two team qualifying for the last sixteen and the two that won’t.

Certainly there have been one-sided affairs in the other groups. Liverpool thumping Maribor 7-0 is the biggest single win of the group stages to date this season, while Real Madrid thumping APOEL 6-0 matches the 7-1 defeat we received on match day five from Paris Saint-Germain.

But in Liverpool’s group, the top three are all within three points of each other. Indeed in six of the eight groups there’s still a chance for the third place team to jump up and qualify. Only our group and Group H have been decided – which takes us back to Real Madrid again.

The ever increasing difference between the haves and the have-nots of European football has been well documented. Of the five teams who came through the Champions qualification route this season, Celtic actually have the most points at just three. APOEL have two from their two draws against Borussia Dortmund while Maribor did likewise against Spartak Moscow, as did Qarabag against Atletico Madrid.

Olympiakos only have a single point, but unlike all the other champions route qualifiers they did earn that against group topping Barcelona rather than the team in third.

Well, except for us of course. We are the team in third.

Indeed, ourselves and APOEL are the only champions route qualifiers who still stand a chance of being in Europe after Christmas. But even then, APOEL need to either have a better result away to Tottenham Hotspur than Dortmund manage in Madrid, or hope that Dortmund get hammered by Real Madrid to turnaround a goal difference which is seven goals worse off.

So realistically, we’re the last champions standing, because we at least have an excellent chance of remaining in third after tonight’s match and still being in Europe after Christmas.

Which is really frustrating because if you look at the fortunes of the beaten Champions route playoff teams in the Europa League, it’s a somewhat different picture. Slavia Prague are second in Group A, a point ahead of Astana. Only one of them will progress, but it will be one of them.

Copenhagen still have a chance of progressing as well, even though they currently sit third in their group, but both Rijeka and Hapoel Be’er Sheva have been eliminated. None of them have been on the end of a demoralising hiding though.

So what you rather do? Play the Champions League group stages, get the money, but get pumped by one or two of the tournament favourites? Or drop into the Europa League, have a decent chance of picking up points and actually competing with the teams you’re facing?

Actually, that’s easy. I’ll take the Champions League every time. Regardless of those PSG hammerings, I want more nights like the home game against Bayern Munich. We showed what we could do that night, and with one less mistake we could have got something from the game. That financial gap may be growing all the time, but you can still bridge it with the right players playing well at the right time. It is eleven versus eleven after all.

The sad truth is that the financial gap won’t truly be bridged until there’s a massive overhaul of how football works across the globe. And it has to be across the globe, because anything regional will just result in other regions taking advantage.

So if anyone in Scotland thinks that bridging the other frustrating gap between the rest of Scotland and Celtic is something that can be done at SPFL or SFA level then they can jog on. All that will do is ruin the game in Scotland.

But hey, our governing bodies are good at that. So I wouldn’t put it past them.

Maybe you should just take comfort in the fact that Celtic are where we are at the moment with a strong Scottish core – just look at who the best performers in that Bayern Munich game were!

For now though, the focus is on the visit of Anderlecht. The numbers are simple. Win, and we finish third and drop into the Europa League. Draw, and we do likewise. Lose by one or two goals, and we still do likewise. Lose by three or more and it will be Anderlecht who take it from us.

Yes, even a 3-0 would do it for them because our goal difference is awful. Anderlecht didn’t get as big a hiding from PSG as we did.

Although we won 3-0 I’m Belgium, we cannot forget the mess Anderlecht were in at the time. It was so bad, they had just sacked their manager after a terrible start to the season.

Well, since then they’ve won seven league matches out of nine, drawing one and losing the other. They’re up to third in the league, six points off top spot and just a point behind second place Charleroi. They’re scoring goals again, with only the draw against league leaders Club Brugge finishing goalless.

Yes, they were knocked out of the Belgian Cup last midweek by Standard Liege, but the midweek before that they took on Bayern Munich and very nearly got themselves the point or more which could easily have changed the complexion of tonight’s match. Sofiane Hanni even scored Anderlecht’s first goal of the group stages in that match and the reports suggest they were unlucky not to add to that goal.

But thankfully they still lost. So this is still very much in our hands.

Nevertheless, a narrow home defeat to Bayern Munich should demonstrate that Anderlecht are pretty much on a par with us at this point. The game in Brussels in September was a terrific result for us, and arguably we should have scored more, but we still had our nervy moments.

And what really worries me is what happens when we do have those nervy moments. We seem to concede goals in batches in Europe.

Astana got two in a minute back in August. PSG scored their last two goals at Celtic Park in quick succession, while the game in Paris saw them score the last three goals in a five minute spell. Even Bayern’s quick start in Germany should have seen them score two – one of which didn’t stand and one was a penalty they didn’t get.

Last season wasn’t much better. The two Hapoel Be’er Sheva goals at Celtic Park were only a couple of minutes apart, while Iniesta and Messi scored within a minute of each other in the 7-0 mauling.

We do have a habit of falling apart for a short spell in Europe when it’s going badly, and in this game we simply can’t afford to do that. If Anderlecht get one, the last thing we want to do is see them get two almost immediately afterwards. That effective 3-0 lead we have over them would evaporate quickly if that happened.

Personally, I’d rather we just put this to bed early. How good would it be to find ourselves 3-0 up in the first half an hour? It’s not like it hasn’t happened before!

November 2003 was Anderlecht’s last visit to Celtic Park and what followed was arguably Celtic’s finest 45 minutes in the Champions League group stages. Twelve minutes into the game, Henrik Larsson gave Celtic the lead after a Didier Agathe cross was nodded down by John Hartson into Henrik’s path. Five minutes later, Jackie McNamara sent Liam Miller through on goal and he fired Celtic 2-0 up.

Liam Miller was outstanding that night. So much so that this is the day he effectively got his dream move to boyhood heroes Manchester United. With Sir Alex Ferguson watching on from the stand, reportedly there to see Anderlecht’s young defender Vincent Kompany, he picked the right night to show what he could do. I’ve always found it hard to criticise Liam for choosing to sign for his boyhood heroes, although heart clearly ruled head at that time given what followed, but it does amuse me how Kompany would later come back to bite Fergie on the behind.

Hopefully Liam can pull through his current medical problems. Given his part in one of my favourite Celtic seasons, it’s truly depressing to think he’s now the third member of that squad to suffer from some form of cancer after John Hartson and Stiliyan Petrov. Fourth if you count Tommy Burns who would have worked closely with Liam during his development at Celtic.

It was a Petrov corner into Hartson that was flicked on to Chris Sutton to head home the third goal on the half hour mark in that match which really set us on easy street. The only real disappointment that night was that Aruna Dindane went down easily under a Bobo Balde challenge which I still reckon was outside the area. Nevertheless, the resultant penalty Anderlecht got was saved twice by Magnus Hedman before Aruna scored the second rebound. Our defence was clearly half asleep at that point.

Finishing off this season’s Champions League campaign with a win would certainly be a welcome boost for everyone. The coefficient could do with it, the players would no doubt love to do it, and of course the fans would too. It’s been a long while since our last home victory in the group stages – the 2-1 win over Ajax in 2013 to be specific.

This won’t be easy, especially with no Patrick Roberts and possibly not Moussa Dembele – though he did train yesterday – but if other players like James Forrest, Callum McGregor, Leigh Griffiths, Scott Brown and Kieran Tierney can all be at peak performance then I’d fancy our chances to sign off in style.

And yes I am making that Scottish players point again!

Then again, maybe Odsonne Edouard will get the nod. After a hat trick at the weekend, maybe he’s asking the question of Brendan Rodgers. Could this be his time?

We’re in the driving seat tonight. We’re at home, it’s a big European night at Celtic Park, and there’s something to play for. Hopefully come full time we’ll have ensured it won’t be the last time this season.

Krys (Twitter @krys1888)

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