I’ve said many times that 2003/04 was probably my favourite season as a Celtic fan. Arguably last season topped it, but since I wasn’t at most of the games last season I’d probably still go for 2003/04 for that reason.
Well, that and the fact that we had another memorable season in Europe. I mean, we knocked Barcelona out of the UEFA Cup that season. We’ll not mention the Barcelona games from last season!
However, the only reason we even faced Barcelona in 2003/04 was because we finished third in our Champions League group. Just as with this season, we had been paired with a French team as well as Bayern Munich and Anderlecht. Unfortunately for us, it was Bayern and the French team – Olympique Lyonnais rather than Paris Saint-Germain – that progressed to the latter stages.
Finishing on seven points, two behind Bayern, we still managed to finish ahead of an Anderlecht side who also managed to gain seven points but who had lost out on the head-to-head with us thanks mainly to our 3-1 win over them at Celtic Park. That was a game where we were 3-0 up at half time and cruising, such was our dominance in one of our finest group stage performances in any season before or since.
The first game between the two sides in Belgium was a far different affair though.
2003/04 might be my favourite, but it was far from perfect and possibly contains Martin O’Neill’s worst European performance. Some might point to the disappointment against FC Basel in Champions League qualifying that ultimately took us to Seville, while others might suggest the big defeat away to Shakhtar Donetsk was a hard one to take.
But I would suggest that losing 1-0 to a team that played with ten men for three quarters of the match might just trump those bad results.
Having narrowly lost in Munich in the first game of the campaign, we’d come roaring back with a wonderful home win over Lyon. We were in the middle of what would become a 25 game winning streak in the league and so were in confident mood heading to Belgium to face an Anderlecht side who had drawn 1-1 at home to Bayern in the previous game having lost in France on match day one.
Anderlecht started the better of the two sides that night, but Anderlecht captain Glen De Boeck quickly found himself in bother as he was booked after quarter of an hour for scything down Henrik Larsson and then again ten minutes later for pulling back John Hartson.
Advantage Celtic, and soon the extra man began to tell as Celtic started to get the better of the chances. Unfortunately, Celtic couldn’t find their way past goalkeeper Daniel Zitka, and when Hartson did manage to tap in a rebound from a Larsson effort he was correctly ruled offside.
Celtic should have had a penalty that night when Olivier Deschacht brought down Larsson, but the referee wasn’t having it and so another chance was lost. Although Celtic continued to dominate the chances into the second half, we just could not find our way to the opener.
And then the sucker punch came.
Christian Wilhelmsson found Dindane Aruna ten yards out with a cut back from the byline and Dindane scored the only goal of the game. Celtic had another couple of chances before the end, but it wasn’t to be and the ten men had a valuable three points.
It’s a cautionary tale for Celtic to note, and once more we travel to Belgium to face an Anderlecht side who don’t have their problems to seek. Manager Rene Weiler was sacked last week after a dismal start to the season for Anderlecht. Despite winning 2-1 away to Waasland-Beveren at the weekend thanks to a late turnaround, they are still sitting seventh in the Belgian league after eight games.
That win actually moved them up from ninth place, so being managerless for the time being with Nicolas Frutos in temporary charge seems to have that unusual boost yet again. However, they’re a full nine points behind leaders Club Brugge already and like us lost their opening Champions League game.
In their case, it was a 3-0 defeat away to Bayern Munich, who unlike us fourteen years ago didn’t have any problem beating ten men after midfielder Sven Kums was sent off for bringing down Robert Lewandowski. He’ll be suspended for tonight’s game.
One man who may feature that might be a familiar name is that of Henry Onyekuru. The Nigerian was heavily linked with a move to Celtic in January and even wanted to come, but Eupen wouldn’t let him leave and he eventually signed for Everton in the summer instead. Everton quickly loaned him out again to Anderlecht, which is why he may now be facing the club he wanted to play for just nine months ago.
He’s been on the scoresheet a few times in the league, with two goals in the win over Lokeren and another in the draw with Kortrijk this month. That makes him Anderlecht’s top scorer, with Pole Lukasz Teodorczyk and Algerian Sofiane Hanni each on two goals so far. Teodorczyk is struggling for fitness and may not make it though, so that could be a bonus for us. Further back on the park, record £9m signing at the start of last season Nicolae Stanciu scored at the weekend, and he’ll be a threat as he’ll look to match his double figures from midfield tally of last season.
And remember Olivier Deschacht, the man who got away with one on Henrik? He’s still at Anderlecht! At 36 years old, he might be the second player to play in this campaign that we also faced in 2003/04 after PSG’s Thiago Motta.
As well as Onyekuru, Anderlecht have another loan from the English league in goalkeeper Matz Sels. Although it should be noted that he was dropped in favour of Frank Boekx at the weekend, loaning goalkeepers from Newcastle United can often work wonders for you in European terms. You need look no further than Fraser Forster for proof of that! Admittedly, Forster had made his move permanent before he earned the nickname La Gran Muralla.
If we’re to have any aspirations of making Europe after Christmas this season, then the games against Anderlecht will be pivotal in that. If the top two of Bayern and PSG are going to take full points off both of us as many expect and fear, then really this is a two-legged fight for third spot. There’s no guarantee it will be that simple of course, there’s always a chance of taking something from the other two, but for the most part it holds true. But that goes for Anderlecht as well as ourselves, so it still comes down to tonight’s match and the return at Celtic Park on match day six.
Six points from the two games would be ideal, but four points might well be enough so a draw in Brussels tonight would be a good result. But I have no doubt that Brendan Rodgers will set out to try and ensure that Celtic end a run tonight of ten group stage matches without a win dating back to Ajax in 2013/14.
Indeed, if you include the Europa League, Celtic haven’t won a group stage match since Astra Giurgiu in 2014/15. Some sixteen group games have come and gone since then without a win. And of course, this one is away from home. We haven’t won away from home in a group stage match since Spartak Moscow in 2012/13.
If we’re to end all of those runs, tonight’s the night. But the echoes of 2003/04 should warn against any complacency. These are the Belgian champions after all. They may not be from a fancied league, and they might be the pot three team in this group, but we’re not from a fancied league either and we’re the pot four team. We have no divine right for anything. This certainly won’t be the walk in the park of the previous two domestic away games, that’s for sure.
And if you need any more warning, just look to last season. We confidently went into a home game against Borussia Monchengladbach knowing they were the third pot team and were struggling with injury and form – only to be deservedly beaten 2-0.
Or just look to last night. I’m sure some of the pot four teams fancied their chances against pot three opposition, but it was four wins from four for pot three. Hopefully not a pattern that will be repeated tonight.
If we want it, we have to show it. We have to go out there and earn it. If we play to our strengths, we can do it. And if anyone can get these players to do that, it’s Brendan Rodgers.
Krys (Twitter @krys1888)