PLAYERS rarely seem delighted with a place in the Europa League, the continent’s consolation cup. Finding a Champions League group with Paris St Germain and Bayern Munich in it meant that third place and a Europa League last 32 spot was the best Celtic could realistically aim for from this section, but few in home colours were doing cartwheels last night as Parkhead side, knowing they only had to avoid a three-goal defeat to ensure qualification, did pretty much the bare minimum they required to keep their European adventure alive beyond Christmas.
This was a strangely joyless affair where it was hard to dress up a 1-0 home defeat to the Belgian champions a moral victory.
As miraculous as the Brendan Rodgers era has been, it all means a second season has passed without him achieving a home Champions League win.
While Celtic trudged off to wait for Monday’s Europa League draw, even Anderlecht, taking the £1m Uefa prize money back home with them, seemed strangely reluctant to throw the kitchen sink at them in the closing stages here as they chased the two goals they still needed to beat them to it.
Clubs of all shapes and sizes of club await for Celtic in the Europa League when the draw is made on Monday. Some, such as Arsenal and Atletico Madrid, come from European football’s top drawer, while others – like Ostersunds and FC Sheriff of Moldova – are mere curiosities when it comes to continental football. While certain big English sides thumb their noses at it, there are historic clubs like AC Milan, under the charge of Rino Gattuso, and Lazio in there, who could inject a further element of glamour if paired with Celtic next week.
And for the dreamers out there, there’s a guaranteed spot in the Champions League group stages there for the winner, something which could actually unlock a second Champions League spot for Scotland’s second-best teama this season.
But if last night’s evidence is anything to go by, Celtic must still sharpen up their act even when it comes to dealing with these mid-range teams. For now, few people watching last night would argue that this yo-yo territory between the Champions League and the Europa League isn’t their natural terrain.
At times last night, it was almost as if Celtic had entered the Europa League early. Excitement is usually at fever pitch when it comes to these games, but compared to a Paris St Germain or a Bayern Munich, the visit of Belgium’s third best team made for a rather mundane affair.
It wasn’t exactly the occasion Scott Brown wanted as he broke Kenny Dalglish’s all-time Scottish record for matches played in the Champions League/European Cup. He still has the best part of 100 to go if he wants to reel in the likes of Iker Casillas, Xavi or Ryan Giggs.
While the captain used his experience well for his team last night, seasoned watchers of Scottish football braced themselves for a fraught evening, not least when the visitors’ captain Sofiane Hanni brushed off Brown and fed Henry Onyekuru, the Nigerian striker who Celtic almost signed playing Sven Kums in for a shot which Craig Gordon managed to get his body in the way of.
Adrien Trebel had another couple of efforts in a half where the visitors were the more accomplished side. As much as Brendan Rodgers stressed the dangers of complacency – he calls it a disease – it was hard to avoid the suspicion that Celtic had psychologically given themselves the buffer of a three-goal margin to play with.
A Paris St Germain or a Bayern Munich might have punished them more, but – even in victory last night, it was clear that Anderlecht’s players don’t possess the same vision or the same killer final touch.
Rodgers was unhappy enough about his team’ first-half performance to change to a three at the back and introduce Olivier Ntcham and Tom Rogic for Stuart Armstrong and Scott Sinclair and it was ironic that Celtic were playing better when they conceded at the other end.
James Forrest had forced a save from Frank Boeckx down one side and Kieran Tierney was getting forward well on the other flank, but with Moussa Dembele not finding any luck in front of goal, the only Celtic player who got on the scoresheet did so at the wrong end. Dennis Appiah speared over a cross from the right, Pieter Gerkens made the run but it was Jozo Simunovic who got the final touch, deflecting the ball with the back of his head in off the inside of the post.
Half an hour left, with just two goals required now, Parkhead held its breath for five minutes, as supporters went through the doomsday scenario in their heads. You might have thought the time was right for the Belgians to go for broke.
But with Celtic bravely playing the game in their half of the pitch, they too seemed reluctant to push the envelope too much, and by the end they were left making square passes along their back four.
Odsonne Edouard attempted to bring a bit of freshness from the bench, but for all the Frenchman’s effervescence, this was just one of those nights.
It was a result which no-one was entirely happy with but Celtic will have forgotten all about this by the time the winter break has been and gone and they return to Europa League action in February. Perhaps the players might even be delighted to be in it by the time that comes round.