V for Victory

I’ve heard one good point made on a number of occasions about Celtic’s current predicament.

As disappointing as it is not to be playing in the Champions League, I don’t think any of us really enjoyed being pumped by Paris Saint-Germain or Barcelona.

There’s no way of knowing what a group stage draw would have thrown up this year. Maybe we would have found ourselves in a group like Leicester had, rather than having to face two of the top five favourites to win the competition like we did in both of the last two seasons.

But the simple fact of the matter was that we weren’t good enough to reach the group stages, and so we find ourselves in the Europa League playoff round, trying to reach that competition’s group stages instead.

There’s no guarantee we won’t get one of the favourites to win the tournament there either of course, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First we have to get past a familiar name from recent Celtic history.

In August 2002, we had come within a whisker of knocking out FC Basel to reach a second consecutive Champions League group stage. Our very first appearance there had come in Martin O’Neill’s second season, and we’d amassed nine points. It was a terrific showing, and is still one of the best achieved by a Scottish club. Gordon Strachan’s Celtic matched it twice, while Neil Lennon’s Celtic still have the best record with a full ten points.

So to miss out on trying again was a massive disappointment. Especially when we had been 3-1 up from the home leg, only to lose 2-0 in Switzerland. When I say we were a whisker away, many will remember how Chris Sutton’s late effort went agonisingly past the post. Many will have had a similar feeling last week when the late Jozo Simunovic effort did likewise.

The defeat to Basel saw us drop into the UEFA Cup, and the first round of that only hammered home the point that we had missed out on the glamour of the Champions League by pairing us with Lithuania’s FK Suduva.

A team we gubbed 8-1 in the first leg. The tie was so over that the likes of Henrik Larsson didn’t even travel for the second leg, such was the formality. When I say that one of the two goals we scored over there came from David Fernandez, you can probably imagine how that went!

However, that means that Suduva are the often ignored first step on the road to Seville. People remember the other rounds for a variety of reasons – the two ties against English opponents, the away goals win in Vigo, the remarkable tie killing start in Stuttgart, and of course the delight at knocking out Boavista to reach our first European final in 33 years. But Suduva kicked it all off, as the first part of the V for Victory quirk of names.

But Suduva aren’t the team we faced back then. When we played then in the first round of the UEFA Cup in 2002/03, that was only their second ever European match. They had won their first in the qualifying round that same season, beating Brann of Norway.6-4 on aggregate. They didn’t play in Europe again until 2006/07, but they have been more or less improving ever since, generally reaching the second qualifying round, but last season they made it all the way to the playoff round where they lost out 2-0 on aggregate to Ludogorets.

That was a bit unfortunate for them, as Ludogorets were another Champions League dropout. Of course, UEFA have changed how qualifying works now so that Champions League dropouts only meet other Champions League dropouts.

And that’s a point worth noting, because that means Suduva dropped out of the Champions League qualifying themselves this year. They beat APOEL Nicosia in the first round, before losing to Red Star Belgrade in the second. FK Spartaks Jumala were beaten in the third qualifying round of the Europa League which is how they now find themselves facing Celtic.

Suduva’s participation in the Champions League came as a result of them winning the Lithuanian league for the first time in their history. Compare that with when we last played them and you’ll find that they hadn’t long been promoted to the top flight and had reached the cup final to earn their place in Europe.

The point to take away from all of this is simple. Yes, we beat them 10-1 on aggregate sixteen years ago. But Suduva aren’t the same team we faced back then. They’ve got far more experience, they’ve improved, and we don’t have a player like Henrik Larsson to score a European hat trick any more.

They’re in the middle of the Lithuanian season, and currently lead the A Lyga. They’ve played as many games in Europe this season as Celtic have, with just as much success. Two ties won, one tie lost. One of those was against APOEL, a team that like Celtic played in the Champions League group stages last season. A team that are also in the Europa League playoff round and face Astana.

Suduva are not the mugs that many would take them for. I would hope that those in charge at Celtic aren’t dismissing them the way the Scottish media and even a lot of the Celtic support appear to be doing.

We’ve already blown it in Europe once this season. To not even reach the group stages of the Europa League would be unforgivable, and many questions would be asked of the players, the manager and the board. Questions that are already being asked, but would undoubtedly become much louder should that happen.

But those questions will have to wait as yet again we have to make do with the squad we have. No new faces since last time, and both Dedryck Boyata and Jack Hendry have stayed at home and not travelled to Lithuania.

Looks like another makeshift defence with little or no cover then. Maybe some questions need to be asked regardless of whether or not we progress in the Europa League.

Krys (Twitter @krys1888)

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