Celtic blew a huge chance to progress to the last 16 of the Europa League on Thursday night with a 4-2 aggregate loss to FC Copenhagen, a result that serves as a reality check for Scottish football.
The Bhoys’ lack of game management at this level showed with the Danish champions’ two late strikes, as defensive frailty reared its head for all three goals.
After thriving in a tough group, with notable home and away wins against Italian giants Lazio, Celtic appeared to struggle with the ‘favourites’ tag, particularly after taking an away-goals lead into the second leg.
The defeat will rankle even more given that this was not a Copenhagen side in a particularly rich vein of form, sitting nine points off the lead in the Superliga having not won domestically since January.
And Rangers’ progression, upsetting Braga 1-0 away to seal a 4-2 aggregate victory, is the final insult.
Ironically the Gers seem to have the opposite problem to their great rivals, overperforming in Europe while struggling for Scottish Premiership consistency.
The pair’s woes – Celtic’s European and Rangers’ domestic – showcase the poor standard of the league as a whole.
Arguably the Hoops suffer in the same way Paris Saint-Germain do in the Champions League, a lack of meaningful competition at home meaning they struggle to adapt to teams of a higher quality.
Although there are some talented individuals plying their trade in Scotland, the most gifted are usually signed relatively young and outgrow the division within a few years.
Virgil van Dijk left Celtic years before hitting his prime with Liverpool, while Moussa Dembele is a more recent departure who is now a regular scorer in France’s Ligue 1 and often linked with a move to England.
Odsonne Edouard’s excellent form is attracting admiring glances across the continent, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the ambitious Frenchman depart Parkhead in the summer.
The problem of retaining talent runs deeper than just the big two clubs, though; sides in England’s second tier frequently snatch promising players from Scotland’s top flight.
Just look at John McGinn; signed by then-Championship outfit Aston Villa from Hibernian for less than £3 million, he’s now one of the Villans’ most important players and plies his trade in the Premier League.
Celtic and Rangers’ European fortunes are now essentially the barometer for the overall strength of Scottish football.
To significantly improve the nation’s UEFA coefficient ranking, realistically it needs one of those two in the Champions League groups each season, and the other to consistently reach the knockout stages of the Europa League.
This would then open up further European places to the rest of the league, the only sure-fire way to improve the overall standard.
Until then, Scotland is destined to languish as a footballing third-tier country.
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