It’s around that time of year where Scottish football fans start to chirp up again. After a dormant summer, the new season is heralded by the mountainous path the nation’s clubs must climb to test their mettle against the continent’s best. Much to the rest of the country’s chagrin, newspaper columns will be once more filled with the antics of the Old Firm abroad now that Aberdeen and Hibernian have both fallen short of the mark, and if you were to focus efforts entirely upon on-field matters, the simple story would be of one half of Glasgow underperforming and the other punching above their weight.
Celtic failed to make their third consecutive Champions League group stage appearance. The Hoops fell to AEK Athens in Greece in the third qualifying round of the illustrious competition but the club have qualified for Europe’s secondary. The Celts were uninspiring in the first-leg of their Europa League qualifying tie drawing 1-1 with FK Suduva in Lithuania, but avoided a second European exit with a dominant 3-0 second-leg win in Glasgow. Brendan Rodgers has made no secret of his angst regarding Peter Lawwell’s reluctance to loosen his purse strings, and given that the Northern Irishman was brought in to further Celtic’s European ambition, this should come as no surprise. Celtic were the same domineering force domestically that they always have been when Rodgers’ predecessor Ronny Delia was in charge, but they were often found lacking on the continent. Brendan righted the ship in that department and after their unprecedented “double treble”, regression would not be at all the want at Parkhead.
Celtic fans will begrudgingly accept the Europa League. Yes, it’s not the promised land of the Champions League but they will be placated by the fact that it is still European competition. Brendan Rodgers’ men have been however drawn in a very tricky group in the competition. The Glasgow side will face German club RasenBallsport Leipzig and Austrian outfit Red Bull Salzburg – both of whom are owned by energy drink company Red Bull. Norwegian side Rosenborg, who Celtic have knocked out of the Champions League the past two seasons, complete the group. In this challenging group, there are some really threatening players. Leipzig’s highly-rated young trio of Timo Werner, Yusuf Poulsen and Emil Forsberg all featured at the World Cup in Russia and will certainly cause a less than convincing Celtic defence problems.
Celtic’s old enemy Rangers on the other hand, will surely relish competing in the group stages of European competition, given that it’s been seven years since they were on the continent in earnest. Steven Gerrard has been lauded by the Ibrox faithful ever since he strolled into Govan. The appointment was a real signal of intent, albeit a huge gamble. It would be unfair to call it an unqualified success – only time will tell whether that is the case – but the infamous Scouse accent has seemingly provoked a reaction from the Rangers squad. In their first qualifier against FK Shkupi, they won 2-0 at home (even though that margin of victory should have been significantly higher). The Macedonians were treated as they should have been – fodder. There was no mucking about here and they are consequently fresh off the back of a refreshingly assured performance in Slovenia, after dispatching NK Maribor, a team who competed in the Champions League as recently as last season. Russian club FC Ufa were the only thing standing in Rangers’ way to a European reunion. The Gers’ narrowly avoiding an awkward reunion with Progrès Niederkorn, the part-time Luxembourgers who stopped Rangers at the first hurdle of Europa League qualification last year. However, despite having to travel to effectively Central Asia, the Glasgow side overcame their challengers. The Gers’ took a slender yet crucial lead to Russia after winning 1-0 in the first leg in Glasgow, and most importantly did not let their Russian counterparts have a critical away goal. Rangers, however, did score a vital away goal inside just nine minutes of the tie and despite ending the game with nine men after two red cards held on to gain a 1-1 draw which sealed their European return. Like their city rivals, Rangers have also been drawn in a tough group with difficult trips to Villarreal and Vienna. As well as, a daunting return to Russia to face Spartak Moscow, who competed in the Champions League last season.
Rangers’ qualification means it is the first time in over a decade two Scottish team will participate in the same European competition group stages, with the last time being the 2007-08 Champions League. Some more cynical Scottish football fans will say that this is a marker of our national game falling, without any male Champions League representation.
All things considered, we forget that Scotland will still have a representative in the elite tiers of European competition. Much like Celtic, Glasgow City FC are near insurmountable on the domestic front of Scottish football. They are currently the 12-times reigning champions of the SWPL 1, the Scottish women’s top flight, a record that no other club in the land can lay claim to. They now also boast the honour of being Scotland’s sole representative in this season’s Champions League. Needing to win by two clear goals to top their qualifying group and ensure knockout football, Sam Kerr struck a late volley against Polish champions Gornik Leczna to send the perennial Scottish champions through, pipping Anderlecht Féminin to the post.
Continual European progression has to be the yardstick by which this team must be measured. While it cannot be ignored that Glasgow City have only been in existence for 20 years, in which time they’ve won a small majority of the domestic league titles they have been eligible for, one gets the sense that they will want to beat more than just the Scottish opposition laid out in front of them. This will no doubt be a massively difficult task. Glasgow City are a chiefly amateur playing squad, most of whom are the very definition of part-timers working second jobs on the side. Football for these women is a vocation and it is quite amazing considering that these players hold their own against the outfits of the mainland continent, PSG Féminines, Lyonnais Féminin and Wolfsburg Women chief among which, all of whom have vastly bigger budgets to pay their playing staff and add to their squads. Until Glasgow City can afford to do the same, it may be a case of history repeating itself. But this is merely conjecture. Scottish football should count itself lucky that it has managed to shoehorn its way into the Champions League once again and for that, it has Glasgow City FC to thank.