There are a lot of problems with playing in Scottish Football. If I were to start talking about them all, this blog would probably rival War and Peace for length, so let me focus in on just a single one that matters to us this week.
Champions League qualification.
For several seasons now, Celtic have been faced with the daunting task of navigating through no fewer than three qualifying rounds just to reach the group stages of Europe’s premier competition.
Back in Neil Lennon’s first crack at it in 2012/13, we only had two rounds to negotiate thanks to Scotland’s national coefficient placing us 15th of the then 53 nations who sent teams into UEFA’s competitions. Such was Scotland’s standing that the runners-up also got into the Champions League qualifiers, although of course Scotland’s runners-up from 2011/12 ceased to be and so that reward fell to third placed Motherwell instead.
Fast forward to 2017/18 and Scotland finds itself ten places further down the pecking order in 25th. We are now so far down the list that even our “Cup Winners” place only got a bye to the second qualifying round of the Europa League by virtue of the fact that Manchester United won the competition and so didn’t use the place they had earned from their league position because they’ll be in the Champions League instead.
That’s the “Cup Winners” place that went to Aberdeen because they both lost the cup final and finished second in the league, in case you hadn’t realised.
Despite Scotland’s awful ranking, Celtic’s own individual ranking is reasonably good. We are 48th in Europe going into this season, thanks in no small part to our performance in 2012/13 where we not only reached the group stages of the Champions League but took a Scottish record ten points while there to progress into the last sixteen. Sadly, that performance will drop off the calculations next time round and so we really could do with boosting our performance this season.
Of the teams that have to qualify for the group stages, we are the second highest ranked champions behind Olympiakos of Greece, while five of the non-champions also have a higher standing than ourselves. Of those who qualified for the group stages automatically, only Russian champions Spartak Moscow have a lower coefficient than ourselves.
To put it another way, of all teams eligible to compete in the Champions League, we’re ranked 26th. UEFA would expect us to make it into that fourth pot at the end of August.
But clearly, having three qualifying rounds right at the start of our season doesn’t make that easy on us. So why does a team ranked so highly by UEFA have to jump through so many hoops?
Because the other teams in Scotland badly let us down.
In the last five seasons – the seasons that count at the moment – the points earned by Scottish teams has been as follows.
2012/13: 21.5 points from five teams. 20 of them by Celtic. St Johnstone, Dundee United and Hearts all earned 0.5, Motherwell earned none.
2013/14: 13 points from four teams. 10.5 of them by Celtic and the other 2.5 by St Johnstone. Hibernian and Motherwell earned none.
2014/15: 16 points from four teams. 10.5 of them by Celtic, 3.5 of them by Aberdeen, 1.5 by St Johnstone and 0.5 by Motherwell.
2015/16: 12 points from four teams. 7.5 of them by Celtic, 3 of them by Aberdeen, 1 by St Johnstone and 0.5 by Inverness.
2016/17: 17.5 points from four teams. 10.5 of them by Celtic, 3.5 of them by Aberdeen, 2.5 by Hearts, 1 by Hibernian.
It makes for grim reading, doesn’t? Aberdeen have been fairly consistent but haven’t quite made it to the group stages of the Europa League, while St Johnstone spiked but tailed off. There’s some awful wastes in there as well though. Three seasons of Motherwell to get half a point being arguably the worst.
I accept that it’s hard to make any inroads on this when qualifying halves the points, but even if a couple of other teams had performed like Aberdeen have then we’d be in a better position. An extra eight coefficient points over the last four seasons would have seen Scotland ranked 19th.
Mind you, to have any effect on which qualifying round we enter we would need to have won an additional 26. All these defeats that should be draws, draws that should be wins, and exits to teams ranked far lower mount up. And I would certainly accept that we’ve had our own fair share of dodgy results over these years where we should have done better, but given we’re top 50 anyway we evidently haven’t done all that bad.
Early calculations now have Scotland dropping to 27th, but that could still change depending on how Aberdeen and Celtic get on. Sadly, this calculation has already taken into account the two teams that have already exited Europe at the earliest opportunity.
Although it’s true that from next season that the country coefficient will play no part in the club’s coefficient, that only means that club seeding will no longer get a boost because you happen to be from a big country. The country coefficient will still determine which round of qualifying at which you enter.
And with the Champions League access list changing again next season to ensure all four Spanish, Germany, English and Italian teams qualify for the groups automatically, from next season we’ll find it even harder to make the group stages. Not only will there be less spots for qualifiers – just six down from ten, two non champions and four champions as opposed to five of each – but many more teams will have to start even earlier.
Yes, from next season, any champion from a country ranked eighteenth or lower will have to play FOUR qualifying rounds to make the Champions League group stages.
As things stand right now, Croatia in seventeenth place are six and a half coefficient points ahead of us and they still have all four of their teams in Europe earning points. To make that up, Celtic and Aberdeen will have to earn 26 points more than the Croatians this season. Realistically, that’s not going to happen. But we could do with turning this around sooner rather than later in an effort to limit this problem. Even a dent in that gap would help longer term.
Scotland needs not just Celtic to do well in Europe this season, but Aberdeen as well. Longer term we need a sustained effort from several clubs to help boost Scotland’s standing in Europe. Continually getting knocked out in the early qualifying rounds does the country no good whatsoever, and from our perspective it just makes it harder and harder for us to achieve our goals every season.
And it’s been hard enough these last few seasons as it is.
Krys (Twitter @krys1888)