Even in the last decade, Scottish football has enjoyed a reasonable amount of success in European competition. Both Celtic (2003) and Rangers (2008) reached the UEFA Cup final, and also reached the last 16 of the Champions League, and Aberdeen made it beyond the group stages of the UEFA Cup, drawing 2-2 at home with Bayern Munich before losing on aggregate during the 07/08 competition.
But recent years have been more of a struggle, with Celtic and Rangers failing to even qualify for the group stages of both competitions, and other SPL clubs losing at the first time of asking. Barring a remarkably strong performance in Europe this season, the 2012/13 campaign will be the last for the foreseeable future that sees two Scottish clubs enter the Champions League. Those two teams are champions Celtic and Motherwell, who finished 3rd in the SPL last season, but qualified for the Champions League due to Rangers going into administration and being unable to compete in Europe.
Both clubs face two rounds of qualifying before they can reach the group stages of the competition, with Celtic getting an (on paper) easier draw through the Champions route. They will face Finland’s HJK, while Motherwell, in the harder part of the draw, will face Panathianakos. In the Europa League, St. Johnstone have already been knocked out in the second qualifying round, losing 3-1 on aggregate to Turkish side Eskisehirspor. Dundee United enter in the third qualifying round, and face a tough tie against Dynamo Moscow while Hearts are one of 19 teams that enter in the playoff round.
Next season only the winners of the SPL will qualify for the Champions League, with the second and third places teams, along with the Scottish Cup winners, entering the Europa League. With Rangers out of the SPL, it would be a major surprise if Celtic didn’t win the league title, so the other 11 teams will be chasing two Europa League places, as well as the runners up spot.
Poor European performances have left Scotland 18th in UEFA’s ranking system, and Scotland’s points differential is significantly lower than that of Austria in 15th, which is the lowest ranking that allows two teams from one country to qualify for the Champions League. That ranking will continue to drop unless Scottish teams start to progress further in European competitions, and the onus is very much on Celtic to do that.
Under Neil Lennon, Celtic have yet to win a qualifying match in either competition. They lost to Braga (Champions League) and then Utrecht (Europa League) in Lennon’s first full season in charge, and lost to Sion (Europa League) last season, only to be reinstated after UEFA disqualified Sion for fielding ineligible players. They failed to progress beyond the ground stages after only winning one match, and Lennon will certainly be under pressure to deliver Champions League football this season, with worries over the financial impact Rangers being out of the league will have on the SPL.
If there is little competition for Celtic in the SPL, the lure of Champions League football will be what attracts better players to Parkhead. But if Scottish clubs continue to go out early in European competitions, it will become more and more difficult for clubs to get to the group stages of the Champions League or Europa League. Motherwell still had to cut costs over the summer despite reaching the Champions League for the first time, and the less glamorous Europa League offers significantly lower prize money than the Champions League.
Scottish football is facing a multitude of problems in the wake of Rangers financial collapse and subsequent reinstatement into Division 3. Television deals may be reduced, and attendances might drop too. European football can be a lucrative source of income, but unless Scottish clubs start winning more European fixtures, they money will dry up.
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