The UEFA Champions League kicks off this week and so begins another season of underachievement and poor results from Scottish teams in European competition – and we’re only in September!
Celtic are once again the only remaining Scottish side left in European competition and even they have already been eliminated twice from the Champions League. It is a familiar pattern that this early in the season there is little representation for Scottish football in continental competition. St Johnstone, Motherwell and Aberdeen all failed to reach the group stages of the Europa League, whilst Celtic find themselves at that stage after being beaten in the Champions League play-off round by Maribor.
It is not long ago that Scotland regularly had more than one side playing in European competition at least up until Christmas. Due to the UEFA co-efficient seeding system, the SPFL Premiership currently only offers one place for Champions League qualification, whilst league placing and cup success can see clubs entered into the UEFA Europa League. However, due to the consistently poor performances by most Scottish sides in these competitions, some clubs have to enter at the earliest qualifying stages – meaning an early season start and up to eight matches played before entering the financially lucrative group stages.
In what makes for rather depressing reading, you have to head back to the 2007/08 Champions League season for the last time that Scotland had two representatives in the group stages – not surprisingly Rangers and Celtic. Furthermore, both sides achieved relative success in their endeavours, Celtic managed to qualify from a tough group that included AC Milan, Benfica and Shakhtar Donetsk, whilst Rangers finished third in their group, thus qualifying for the knockout stages of the then branded, UEFA Cup. Walter Smith’s side would reach the final, losing 2-0 to Zenit St. Petersburg in Manchester. To be that into some context, this season in the Champions League, Serie A only have two representatives, Juventus and AS Roma.
Such levels of success seem alien to Scottish football supporters these days – the aim for Celtic in recent season has been just to reach the group stages, never mind qualify for the knockout round. The thought of having two Scottish sides in the group stages or even a team reaching a European final is the stuff of fantasy in an era of perennial underachievement. What makes matters worse is the vicious cycle that sees poor performance result in fewer European qualification spots and more qualifying rounds to negotiate to reach proper levels of competition.
The biggest challenge for Scottish football in the coming years is to win back some of the lost prestige and success in European competition. Far easier said than done of course, as this would at the very least require one side – most probably Celtic – to not only qualify for the group stages of the Champions League, but do well in it, or to reach the very late stages of the Europa League; not impossible of course, but recent season don’t give fans much in the way of hope that a return to consistent European qualification for more than one team is imminent. Until such a consistent run can be put together by any team or teams, Scottish club football will continue to be cut adrift on the periphery of the European game.