Old Firm putting Scottish football back on European map
Celtic and Rangers' exploits in Europe this season appear to be putting Scottish football back on the European map.
There was the usual doom and gloom surrounding Scottish teams at the start of the season, as Celtic lost in qualifying for the Champions League for the second successive season and Kilmarnock and Aberdeen suffered early exits from the Europa League.
However, Celtic dropped into Europe’s secondary competition and successfully came through the final qualifying round against AIK to reach the group stage, while Rangers negotiated four ties to take their place in the main draw for the second year in a row.
That was a respectable achievement for the Old Firm duo, but their performances during the group stage appear to have gone above and beyond what many people were expecting.
After only four games Neil Lennon’s Celtic have already booked their place in the knockout stages, collecting 10 points from a possible 12, a run that includes a first ever win on Italian soil against Lazio and a revenge triumph over Cluj – the side that knocked them out of Champions League qualifying.
Rangers, under Steven Gerrard, look well placed to join their fierce rivals in the last 32, with Thursday’s impressive 2-0 win over Porto taking them level on points with Group G leaders Young Boys and three clear of the Portuguese side and Feyenoord.
Not since 2008 have two Scottish clubs remained in European competition beyond Christmas, but that looks a distinct possibility this season and it is a sign that, in at least the case of the Old Firm, Scottish football is emerging from the relative doldrums of the last few years.
Indeed, it is not that long ago that both Celtic and Rangers were capable of mixing it with the best teams in Europe – the Bhoys of course made it to the UEFA Cup final back in 2003 and they also reached the knockout stages of the Champions League three times between 2007 and 2013.
Rangers also made it through to the last 16 of Europe’s premier club competition during the noughties, while they were the last Scottish side to reach a major European final in 2008.
Of course, both Old Firm clubs have also won European trophies in the past – Celtic most famously becoming the first British side to lift the European Cup when the Lisbon Lions triumphed over Inter Milan in 1967, while Rangers won the Cup Winners’ Cup five years later.
It would be a big ask for the Old Firm duo to return to those dizzy heights anytime soon, but if they can continue improving then that will also help lift Scotland’s coefficient – which would mean Premiership teams would have to negotiate fewer qualifiers to make it through the latter stages of European competitions.
Scottish teams have already accumulated more coefficient points this season then they have in any of the previous five and, as it stands, the country will rise to 14th in the overall table, which would mean they would have to teams in next season’s Champions League qualifiers.
The Old Firm appear to be returning to the European map and, who knows, one or both of Celtic and Rangers could enjoy deep runs in this season’s Europa League, which will only improve Scotland’s coefficient going forward.