So we’ve now got two teams left in Europe when we were hoping we’d have four. It’s not surprising. Aberdeen and St Johnstone don’t have the comparable level of budget to Rangers and Celtic that would enable them to challenge at a high level even with them being in the Conference League, the third-tier European tournament.
Despite that, St Johnstone did really well, getting a first leg away draw against Austrian side LASK. Sadly though, they were unable to capitalise on this in their home match and although they had two ordering offs, this didn’t have a major impact on the match result.
The major hope for us this season was to see a benefit for our Uefa coefficient, which is pretty reasonable at the moment. Although neither Celtic nor Rangers made the Champions League group stages, we could have benefitted greatly from having four clubs in the group stages of the Europa League and Conference League.
It’s now up to Celtic and Rangers to take the Scottish game forward in the forthcoming group matches. Both are capable of playing and competing at this level and there’s no question that Rangers have performed really well in Europe under Steven Gerrard’s tenure and already, Celtic are looking a stronger outfit under the management of Ange Postecoglou.
Both sides will actually be very pleased that their Old Firm rivals have qualified for the group stages. If there is to be a league challenge between the clubs this season, then it will be a relief that their main rival will have a similar fixture schedule to them. It would always be a psychological issue if over the season you were playing on a Sunday because of a Thursday European fixture and your league challenger had played the day before and picked up three points. There’s pressure that comes with this and, in addition, the added bonus your rival would gain from having less fixtures could also have a serious impact over the season.
The challenge begins tomorrow and although some people would say I’m a great deal too early to suggest that Celtic can offer competition for the Premier League title this season, they are already looking like a much improved team from last season. They have made good signings and Postecoglou is bringing out the best in players who were already at Celtic such as Stephen Welsh, Anthony Ralston, Greg Taylor, Ryan Christie, Tom Rogic and David Turnbull.
The Rangers defence were the main component in last season’s tremendous unbeaten run. The goals against tally was one of the best in Scottish football history. However, this has changed a bit so far this season with the defence appearing to be a bit shaky at times.
And how will the Celtic defence man up for this challenge? They haven’t been put under too much pressure in recent matches with the midfield and attack controlling the games but they certainly looked a bit vulnerable at the back against Alkmaar on Thursday night. This was obviously against the best attacking team Celtic have met so far and I’m sure Postecoglou will be analysing the footage from the match to try to stabilise the positional structure that he’s adopting. When I look at the recent form of both clubs it’s certainly the case that Celtic could be considered favourites but I do feel that Rangers haven’t dropped off in the manner Celtic did last season. I really do think that although it’s a really hard game to predict, I personally would see Rangers as favourites. This will then be down to how well they defend on the day as Celtic’s current strength is definitely their attacking play. Both defences are capable of errors and this could be a crucial factor in determining the outcome.
AND ANOTHER THING
There are three big matches coming up for the Scotland team over the next couple of weeks. Steve Clarke is hoping that the competitive experience gained from the Euros will help take the players to another level for our World Cup campaign. I’m not so sure but I certainly hope he’s right. We were only good in our match with England and it could be argued that this was the toughest test. However, I think we were up for it because it was against our arch rivals as the displays against the Czechs and Croatians didn’t match up at all. The two away games coming up with Denmark and Austria will be really tough but, with current form and fitness, we’ve got rivalry for many of the key positions again so we could go into these matches with strong line-ups which could breathe a degree of confidence throughout the squad. If we pick up a minimum of five points over the three games then I would say it’s a job well done. Any more would be first class.