When, in March, Celtic were knocked out by Juventus in the round of 16 of the Champions League, fans and players alike could hold their heads high, for bowing out against a team that would go on to win their second consecutive Serie A title a couple of months later, could hardly be considered embarrassing.
After all, Neil Lennon’s men had progressed through a tough group that included Benfica and Barcelona, and the Catalan juggernaut had been brought to a halt at Celtic Park, as the home crowd roared Celtic towards one of their most memorable nights in recent seasons.
The Glasgow giants are now on the verge of being knocked out from Europe’s elite competition again, however the gulf in quality between Shakhter Karagandy and Juventus is almost as wide as the distance between Glasgow and the Kazakhstani capital.
The Kazakhstani outfit were treated rather condescendingly in the lead-up to yesterday’s fixture, with Borat and the local tradition of sacrificing a sheep featuring almost as heavily as tactics in the pre-match coverage.
That, however, is where the fun stopped, for Celtic produced a performance well below par and fell to an unexpected, yet totally deserved, defeat against a side ranked 324th in European football.
Having failed to adequately replace the likes of Gary Hooper, Victor Wanyama and Kelvin Wilson, the Scots came undone against a side whose tactics would have made Kevin Kilbane and Tony Pulis proud, while Celtic’s abject failure to convert their chances in front of goal cost them dearly.
Qualification to the group stage poured an estimated £22m in Celtic coffer’s last season and they added almost as many this summer, as they parted ways with some of the prized assets.
Last season’s top scorer Hooper was sold to Norwich for £5.5m, Wanyama moved to the south coast for £12.5m, while Wilson joined fellow former European Cup winners Nottingham Forest for £2.5m.
Despite the profits made from those sales, Celtic have failed to significantly strengthen their squad during the summer and traveled to Kazakhstan without a reliable goalscorer and with Holland U21′s defender Virgil van Dijk making his full debut for the club.
For a club of their size and tradition, Celtic find themselves in the rather unusual position of being a step on the ladder, rather than the summit, a intermediate stop, rather than a destination.
The Glasgow giants have always placed more emphasis in signing relatively unknown players rather than established stars, but even such a frugal policy has proved to be increasingly difficult in recent seasons and, considering the sorry state of Scottish football, it shouldn’t be seen as a surprise.
Would a player seeking to develop his game opt to move to Celtic, knowing he’d find himself in one of Europe’s less competitive league, one where the second favourite team to win the title has odds fluctuating between 36/1 and 61/1?
Scottish football’s most prestigious trophy hasn’t left Glasgow since 1985 when Alex Ferguson steered Aberdeen to the title and Rangers’ demise has stripped Celtic of their only meaningful rival.
In football, just like in any other sport, competition is of paramount importance for teams and players striving to improve, while the lack of a serious challenge can have detrimental effects on performances.
It would be unfair for Celtic to be blamed for the Scottish Premier League’s low standards, but while their fans might enjoy watching their team strolling to the title every year, the lack of competition on the domestic front hinders their chances on the continental stage as well as in the transfer window.
Granted, anything can happen at Parkhead next Wednesday, but having to settle for the financial pittance provided by the Europa League would be a serious blow for the green and white half of Glasgow.