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barcelona game told us nothing we didn't already know
Domestically, everything is as it should be as we prepare for whatever autumn - what that famous footballing poet John Keats used to refer to as the Ņseason of mists and midfield football tricksÓ - as the Hoops sail along serenely at the top of the SPL while the rest of Hammer Throwers Inc. fight it out among themselves. And so we turn our thoughts to matters international as another campaign in the Champions League gets off to a rather stuttering start. The first point worth making is that before a ball was kicked in anger Celtic were unlucky: unlucky that Barcelona and AC Milan were not both in Pot 1 and equally unlucky that we were pulled out to play the both of them. Add to that the Larsson factor - a player with inside knowledge singing like a canary to his new coach - and it was always going to be difficult to make an impression this season. Still, the draws have never really been kind, and thatÕs something that will have to be rectified with a higher coefficient getting us into a different pot. On the night of the opening fixture against the Catalonians at Celtic Park, there were few among us who wouldnÕt have been happy that it was 8.15pm and the score was still 0:0. But once this half hour kick-off delay had been sorted out, just how difficult it was underlined within 20 minutes of the match starting. As usual the atmosphere was extraordinary and itÕs difficult not to get carried away on a wave of irrational optimism under these circumstances. Under OFM Celtic have been pulling off remarkable results at home in this competition and itÕs easy to forget that weÕve been punching above our weight more than somewhat. Expectations were high. Yet the Bhoys were up against a club transformed from the one which came to Glasgow in the UEFA Cup last season. From midfield to forward they read like a fantasy league select; they played like one in the first half as well. EtÕoo, Guily, Deco, Ronaldinho... These are some of the best players in Europe at the moment. Little surprise that Celtic went in at half-time lucky to have nil. Outpassed, outpaced and outskilled, it is to the credit of Martin OÕNeill and the players that they were able to emerge from the tunnel for the second half and for 25 minutes actually make a game of it - there will be plenty of BarcelonaÕs opponents who wonÕt this season. Until the second goal practically put the match beyond Celtic it had becoming the kind of thrilling encounter youÕd gladly pay £81 on top of your season ticket to see. What can we learn from the game against Barca that we didnÕt already know: that we have players in the team who are not in the same class as BarcelonaÕs? That we are deficient in certain key positions when the Hoops have to step up to the plate in the Champs League? That individual blunders are generally punished to the max in this competition? Nah, we all knew that already. We also knew that Chris Sutton is one of the players in the Celtic team that can perform at this level but there were signs that maybe Henri Camara might be a better player than many were giving him credit for and that in David Marshall we have a Ōkeeper who seems to thrive on the big occasions. So at least there are some crumbs of comfort to be derived from a night when we came down to earth with a resounding clatter. The coffee has been well and truly sniffed, we hope, and reality has been duly checked. While weÕd all like to see progress being made year on year - qualification from the group stage was obviously the next logical step - there was always more likely to be a blip waiting somewhere, and it might just be this year. The new players who might have made a difference this summer failed to materialise, for one reason or another, but thatÕs not to say there wonÕt be better news on that front next year. In the meantime itÕs beginning to pan out the way we expected, with Celtic looking towards the two games against the Russians to decide who gets the parachute into the UEFA Cup. But who knows, now that the home record has gone, maybe thisÕll be the year the away record will do likewise. A win in the San Siro would be a good way to break our duck! MANFRED LURKERAs this issue goes to print we still await the puff of smoke from the Walfrid chimney to signify that Celtic have signed a player. While the Corporal Jonseses among us are beginning to appear in full-on 'don't panic' mode, the more sanguine are adopting the Lotus Position, chanting the mantra and trusting that the Blessed Martin is going to resurrect his persona of The Great Martino by whipping back the curtain and pulling three shiny new first team players out of Brian Quinn's top hat.
Unlike last summer, though, we have yet to hear the Chairman's Cassandra-like announcement informing us that despite guaranteed participation in the Champions League there will have to be an austerity budget in operation at Celtic Park. On balance the board were probably correct in their strategy twelve months ago: doing the sums simply left no significant money to spend on players (some £3 million was actually owed on players already bought) without significantly increasing the club's debt, a high risk option given the parlous state of the game at the present time.
It's frustrating, nonetheless, to come so close to qualifying from the Champions League group stage for want of a bit of quality in the side. That the signing of this quality player was predicated, as Quinn said, on qualifying rather than a necessity to ensure qualification seemed to be almost a repeat of the situation prior to the FC Basel tie the season before. For evidence that there is likely to be some substantial activity in the transfer market this time around we need only look as far as the hordes of agents tripping over each other as they slither to the press to shill their clients in the direction of Paradise. Most of this kind of thing can be dismissed as mere fodder for the chip-wrappers, of course, but it would apparently indicate that the word is out within the game that the Hoops are ready to part with a few quid.
Precisely who will eventually come swaggering through the Walfrid's revolving door into the arrivals lounge will be up to Martin O'Neill, and brings us to the good news this month, which is not so much about who is coming or going, but rather who is staying.
In a slight variation to the usual theme, recent speculation has had O'Neill taking time out of the game for much-publicised personal reasons instead of being ready to take a new job elsewhere. Instead, he has confirmed that he is going to be in the Celtic dugout this season - when he's not leaping about on the touchline that is - and none but the most contrary can say that they're not relieved about that.
Amidst all the tabloid tosh about O'Neill leaving for Old Trafford/ Anfield/ White Hart Lane, rolling contracts, money-wrangles with the directors, are there no hacks who can contemplate the possibility that perhaps Martin O'Neill actually likes being in charge of Celtic and is quite happy to stay as long as he's wanted? What's so absurd about that concept??
On the question of new personnel he has been characteristically abstruse and tight-lipped, if not exactly ashen-faced. But he has at least assured us that he is doing his best not to let us down. He hasn't disappointed us too often in the past so we'll content ourselves with that. On the positive side, it should not go unnoticed the number of first team regulars Celtic have signed on extended contracts, nor the good young prospects who have committed themselves to the Hoops for the next few years. The latter is especially encouraging.
At least the manager isn't looking down both barrels like his counterpart at Mordor, faced with the prospect of having to build almost a completely new side from the dregs of last season's embarrassingly unsuccessful flops combined with a trawl through the Bosman Bucket. If there is anybody out there vexed by what they perceive as a flurry of transfer activity at Ibrox they should play the John McLelland version of Fantasy Football: get rid of ten of your already thin first team squad then replace them on a budget of zero.
Neither does the Celtic boss have to get them ready to face a season-defining Champions League qualifying tie before the end of the month with the bank manager hovering over him like a vulture.
It is often trotted out as something of a cliche that Rangers are only ever two bad results away from a crisis. This year it happens to be true.
With another Flag Day in Paradise to look forward to as the curtain runs up for the start of hostilities it's hard to dispel a vague feeling of positivity around NTV Mansions.