Celtic: Why the Hoops Can Soon Be a Legitimate Contender in the Champions League

Paul MullaneyContributor IIApril 2, 2013

TURIN, ITALY - MARCH 06:  Charlie Mulgrew of Celtic during the Champions League round of 16 second leg match between Juventus and Celtic at Juventus Arena on March 6, 2013 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Are Celtic on the way back?

Their eventual exit from this season's Champions League may have been somewhat unceremonious—a 5-0 aggregate thrashing by Italian champions Juventus in a tie where they were never really able to get going—but the overall tone has been one of optimism, and the campaign is guaranteed to live long in the memory of Celtic fans.

Once the qualifying round opposition, in the shape of HJK and Helsingborgs, had been dealt with like the formality it proved to be, Celtic managed to defy the odds and went on to qualify in second place behind Barcelona—but ahead of Benfica and Spartak Moscow, against whom many "experts" had predicted they would seriously struggle.

Neil Lennon proved himself to be a manager capable of taking on the very best in Europe. The players (Fraser Forster, Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper to pick out a few of the standout performers) all showed that they are of sufficient calibre to compete at the top level, playing with the sort of assurance and organisation which so often Celtic had lacked in their previous forays into the Champions League, particularly at home.

The supporters, as was to be expected, provided their team with sensational backing at Parkhead, giving real substance to the idea of the 12th man.

That Juventus were to prove too strong, too accomplished for Celtic will do nothing to detract from what was an enormously successful Champions League campaign for Celtic.

As they look ahead to next season, though, they'll start to ask themselves questions. Are they capable of doing better? Can they push on next season and improve, or will the last 16 always be a bridge too far given Celtic's resources, desperately meagre within a European context?

Despite the optimism which this season's exploits have engendered, the worry is that it will be.

The Juventus tie was highly revealing, and although conceding such a costly early goal forced Celtic to change their game plan entirely, they were outclassed by their opposition from start to finish, and by the time they were finally able to give the Italians anything to worry about, the tie had already been put beyond any reasonable doubt.

Juventus had shown themselves to be superior in almost every aspect, and while Celtic had more than merited their place in the last 16, there was clear evidence of a genuine gulf in quality between the two sides, one which Celtic never once looked likely to surmount.

The likes of Hooper and Commons had been effective in the group stages against more modest opposition, but they were unable to cause Juventus any real problems, and they lacked a resolve defensively which might have covered for the absence of a real threat in attack.

And yet, it might not all be quite so hopeless. Celtic were beaten, yes, and comfortably, but they'll have learned their lesson, and they'll be sure to come back stronger, at least mentally, next time around. Once Celtic get to a stage where they're qualifying for the Champions League season after season, something which the prolonged absence of Rangers should make easier, the situation will change and they'll be able to start thinking properly about how to take on Europe's elite.

The quality of player they'll be able to attract will see a marked increase, and even if they are forced to sell off their prized assets, and will have to contend always with being 'a selling club', this shouldn't preclude them from furthering their European aspirations.

A number of clubs around Europe—Benfica and Porto being perhaps the most notable examples—owe their success not only to their record of bringing in talent from around the globe, but to their knack of knowing when to sell them on to make a profit. They regularly lose players, but they replace them, and they're remunerated well financially.

Celtic need to start doing the same.

Should they lose Wanyama, Forster or Hooper this summer, so long as the fee is right it shouldn't be a cause for concern, or be seen as an indication that they're making concessions or scaling back their ambitions. It's how the game works, and it's the only way they'll be able to progress and develop as a club, both on and off the park.

The money made will allow Celtic to invest in their youth setup, and to widen their scouting network, and long-term this can only be beneficial for a club hoping to grow into contenders in the Champions League.

If Celtic do it right, there's no reason why they can't match the success of teams like Benfica and Porto, or other comparatively small sides (at least by European standards) who have gone on to reach the latter stages of the Champions League.

In modern football, though, money is everything, and before Celtic can really hope to take the next step in Europe, they'll need to be able to compete better financially. But while this is still a decent way off, it's far from impossible.

Consecutive years in the Champions League will see Celtic handsomely rewarded financially, both from UEFA in terms of prize money and from television companies, and in time this should allow them to close the gap.

If they're able to capitalize on their increased notoriety to cash in on their star players at the right time and invest that money shrewdly, there's no reason why Celtic won't be able to push on in the Champions League, especially if UEFA's proposed "fair-play" measures are to be introduced and properly adhered to.

The point is, it's going to take time, and Celtic will have to be patient as well as smart if they're to get back to competing at the very top level in Europe. But it is possible. This season's campaign might have demonstrated their deficiencies as much as it did highlight their progress, but it was a start, and a pretty good one at that.

Are they really back?

That remains to be seen.

But if they can continue to make the same sort of progress in the years to come, and are able to keep picking up bargains that other teams don't spot, it might not be too long before we see them get to the quarter final stage, and possibly even beyond.

For Celtic, it's time to dream big.