FOLLOWING CELTIC’S 2-1 win over Barcelona at Parkhead during the week, some pundits described the result as the biggest shock in Champions League history.
And indeed, even a cursory glance at the two sides’ respective resources makes Wednesday’s outcome all the more remarkable – Barca’s bench cost over €100million more than the hosts’ starting XI.
So how can logic be applied to such a seemingly inexplicable occurrence?
Some of the factors that helped instigate the Scottish side’s ultimate triumph were quite obvious. On the night, everything went right for Celtic – Fraser Forster pulled off numerous excellent saves, Barcelona were sloppy at the back, and Neil Lennon’s tactics were exemplary.
Yet one potentially significant reason for their victory has yet to be suggested. In fact, it is highlighted when they fail to perform, rather than in instances where they overachieve in Europe.
To wit: many critics argue that the relative weakness of the Scottish League creates bad habits in the Celtic side, which are only punished against the better quality of opposition that European football provides.
However, what if the reverse were true and Celtic benefited from not having to exert themselves unduly in these bread-and-butter encounters?
Such a concept is not entirely unheard of in the history of sport. Last year, in the RaboDirect PRO12 league in rugby for instance, Edinburgh finished in 11th position, behind only the Italian side Aironi.
Yet, to many observers’ surprise, their poor form in the league coincided with a series of excellent displays in rugby’s equivalent to the Champions League, the Heineken Cup, therefore enabling them to top their qualifying group and unexpectedly reach the semi-finals of the competition.
Thus, the side were accused by some people of more or less disregarding the RaboDirect PRO12 and expending most of their energy in Europe.
Many rugby pundits consequently suggested that Edinburgh gained an unfair advantage, prompted by this ostensible decision to focus almost exclusively on success in the Heineken Cup.
While there are several distinct differences between their situation and the circumstances surrounding Celtic’s midweek victory, certain parallels seem legitimate.
The Scottish Premier League form of Neil Lennon’s men hasn’t been as dire as Edinburgh’s in the Rabo. However, Celtic are still only joint leaders at the top of the table, alongside Hibernian and Aberdeen on 21 points – a quite disappointing state of affairs, at least judging by their high standards.
And unsurprisingly, many of the Scottish champions’ lacklustre performances have come within days of their distinguished Champions League displays – the Sunday before last Wednesday’s game with Barcelona, they only drew 2-2 with Dundee, while the Saturday after their game at the Nou Camp, in which they were similarly immense, they were beaten 2-0 at home by Kilmarnock.
Nonetheless, like Edinburgh, they’ll feel that they can afford to take their foot off the pedal by occasionally fielding weakened sides, or refraining from playing at peak-level intensity.
(Edinburgh managed to reach the Heineken Cup semi-final last year, despite their poor form in the RaboDirect PRO12 – INPHO/Morgan Treacy)
Following Rangers’ relegation to the Scottish Third Division, Celtic appear to have no realistic title challengers, allowing them to practically write off the odd match, with the knowledge that they’ll have the quality to make up the ground they’ve lost, at a later, more convenient date (i.e. one that doesn’t come so close to a key Champions League tie).
On the other hand, choosing to adopt such a lax approach in the league would, in the past, have almost guaranteed domestic failure, with Rangers around to capitalise on their slip-ups.
Barcelona, by contrast, have shown no signs of slackening off in their domestic league, as they can scarcely afford to, with the likes of Real Madrid challenging them. On the contrary, they have experienced their best-ever start to a La Liga season under Tito Vilanova.
The stark professionalism and faultless attitude that the Catalan side have demonstrated, throughout this campaign, is highly commendable to a degree. However, it of course means they’re at risk of burning out prematurely, and there were occasional signs of wariness-induced lethargy on Wednesday, even if they did enjoy substantial periods of possession for the majority of the contest.
Moreover, Celtic’s triumph was not the only instance of a remarkable European feat accomplished by a football team who have been anything but spectacular domestically.
The sole, respective Champions League triumphs of both Chelsea and Liverpool happened in spite of their simultaneous failure to finish high enough in the Premier League to qualify automatically for the competition.
Indeed, towards the end of last year’s campaign, the London club had seemingly written off their chances of finishing in the top four. Therefore, every decision Roberto Di Matteo made revolved more or less entirely around ensuring his team were in peak condition for their Champions League fixtures. As a result, even in decisive Premier League games, the manager was prepared to field weakened sides to aid their European cause.
And to cite a more obscure but still thoroughly relevant example, South Korean players were excused from their club duties in order to rest extensively, and undergo a meticulous level of preparation, ahead of the 2002 World Cup. Consequently, their subsequent performances saw them exceed all expectations to finish fourth at the tournament, in a similarly admirable manner to the aforementioned unlikely triumphs.
All of which seems to suggest the conspicuous contrast in competitiveness between the Spanish and Scottish leagues was of major benefit to Celtic, rather than Barcelona, as many people had previously indicated.
Nevertheless, while this factor may help partially explain the result that no one outside the Celtic dressing room thought possible, it still does little to detract from the astonishing achievement of Neil Lennon and his men, who played with a level of confidence and composure that belied their limited ability.
Accordingly, on account of their shoestring budget in contrast with their European opponents, they have not only invoked but in many ways surpassed those comparable near-miracles achieved by Chelsea, Liverpool, South Korea and Edinburgh.