Celtic’s first leg against Rosenborg was one in which the Norwegian side were rarely troubled…
Brendan Rodgers can seemingly do no wrong at Celtic Park. The Northern Irish coach has already etched his name into the history books with an undefeated treble in his very first season at the club, whilst developing young players from potential talents to proven stars – all while playing “the Celtic way.”
As the former Liverpool coach marches towards another treble, it would be easy to assume that nothing could knock Rodgers or his Celtic side off their feel-good perch and send them tumbling down a path of self-doubt and potential criticism from the very fans that sing their name each and every week. But this is the world of football and one in which surprises lay around every bend.
Such a bump in the road may, of course, be forthcoming in the form of Zenit St Petersburg, who will arrive in Glasgow this week with the clear intention of calmly and confidently disposing of any notion that the Scottish champions are a match for Roberto Mancini and his star-studded team. In an opening tie at Parkhead, Rodgers will not only have to prove his side can match their Russian opponents but also maintain the theory that he is the man to take Celtic to the next level in Europe.
Indeed, if Rodgers’ domestic record is impeccable then his results in European competition since arriving in Scotland have been scattergun and somewhat inconsistent, to say the least. And, above all, do leave some doubts over the manager’s ability to win games when he and his team are truly up against it.
In 12 attempts, Rodgers has only won one Champions League group stage match. There’s absolutely no doubt that the Celtic manager shouldn’t be asked or indeed expected to get the better of PSG, Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Manchester City, however four games against Anderlecht and Borussia Monchengladbach – sides Celtic should be able to match – have heralded just one win and one draw.
The 45-year-old coach has perhaps enjoyed something of an easy time from fans and critics, having arrived shortly after the failed tenure of Ronny Deila and therefore found himself conveniently and directly compared to the Norwegian coach’s inability to qualify for the Champions League in the first place. Yet when we look a little further back we get far more context and find appropriate comparisons.
Before Deila, there was Neil Lennon. Before him – whilst conveniently sidestepping a season of Tony Mowbray – came Gordon Strachan. And when we look at their records in Europe’s premier competition it suggests that Rodgers ought to be doing far better.
As we can see in the graph above, Rodgers has won just 8% of his total games in the Champions League as Celtic manager, which pales in comparison to the 28% of Lennon and 31% of Strachan. Which may come as a surprise when we consider the reputation and all-round legacy each of these three coaches enjoys among the Parkhead faithful.
Although Lennon and Strachan both had seasons in which they failed – and in both cases quite embarrassingly so – to qualify for the Champions League, each also managed to win games in the group stages and qualify for the Last 16. A task that Rodgers has yet to match, even if he was able to drop into the Europa League this season. And a level he’ll never reach if he can’t increase the number of games he wins against the top teams in Europe.
At the heart of Rodgers’ poor record in the Champions League is undoubtedly his reluctance to deviate from the style of football he and Celtic cherish so deeply. Quick, possession-based football that prioritises attacking lust over defensive pragmatism is at the heart of Rodgers’ coaching ethos and as we’ve seen over the past two seasons it can bring moments of unrivalled accomplishment as well as nights in which Celtic look sorely outgunned on the European stage.
The 3-3 draw against Man City has been heralded as a clear example of what can be accomplished when Rodgers’ style of football is perfected, yet within the wider context of that season it’s a result that is immediately outweighed by Barcelona’s 7-0 win at the Camp Nou or the heavy defeats PSG have handed Celtic on both occasions this season.
Indeed, it’s not just super clubs that can work around Rodgers’ gung-ho tactics. Gladbach made short work of the Scottish champions on one, fateful night at Parkhead in which Celtic were convinced their coach and team would get the better of their German counterparts. They also held Celtic to a draw in the return leg too.
Similarly, in this season’s campaign, Anderlecht travelled to Glasgow and looked as shocked as anyone when they realised their tactics had actually worked and that they had just turned over a lethargic and inept Celtic side. And earlier in the year, in the final qualifying game, Astana put four goals past Rodgers’ travelling side before Olivier Ntcham and Leigh Griffiths spared Celtic their blushes.
In Zenit, Celtic face a side with aspirations of winning the Europa League and following an undefeated run in the preliminary group stages against sides such as Real Sociedad and Rosenborg there’s no reason to believe Mancini’s petrol-funded side ought to fear anyone.
The sky-blue team may no longer boast the likes of Hulk, Axel Witsel and Ezequiel Garay in their squad, yet their ambition has seen them fork out just under £80 million in upgrades in the past 12 months. And as such Thursday’s opponents most likely sit comfortably between the superclubs that have routinely made short work of Rodgers’ Celtic side and the mid-level teams that the Scottish champions have tried to match.
That may sound like a disparaging remark about Celtic’s chances but in truth, it offers Rodgers the opportunity to prove that his side can make up for fortunes spent with smart tactics and a pragmatic system that upsets the odds.
For the first time since he arrived at Celtic, Rodgers will directly tackle a seemingly stronger opponent with the clear intent of bettering them over two legs. As the underdog, with his reputation on the line, Rodgers has very few excuses but most importantly, the perfect opportunity to display how good a coach he truly is.