Following a good start to the domestic league season including in a 4-0 win against Rangers, Celtic were brought down to earth by Real Madrid.
It’s been a decade since Celtic last made it through the group stages of the Champions League, but hopes for this season had been fairly high. After winning the league title back from Rangers, they’ve already started this season with a bang, winning their first six straight league matches.
The league results have been excellent, with 25 goals scored in those six matches, including nine at Dundee United and four against Rangers in their last match, just last weekend. They’re already five points clear at the top of the table. Nothing’s done and dusted yet, but their fans couldn’t have asked for a better start to their domestic league season.
But this is the Champions League, and this is Real Madrid, the club who vulcan death-gripped their way to a 14th Champions League win last season with a series of performances which felt at times like manifest destiny in action. Having become the first team to become the champions of European club football because they always knew they were going to, they provide the most daunting opposition imaginable for any team’s opening fixture.
And it can hardly be said that Glasgow isn’t significant to Real Madrid. Of all those 14 wins, possibly the most precious was their 7-3 win against Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park in 1960 when, on a gusty night in front of more than 127,000 people, a team containing Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas played some of the greatest football this tournament has ever seen. They would only win the tournament once in the next 38 years.
There’s history in this competition at Celtic Park, too. They became the first team from these islands to lift the European Cup in 1967, reached the final in 1970, and the semi-finals in 1972 and 1974. They know a thing or two about big European nights there too, the atmosphere set by a deafening rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, ten minutes before kick-off.
On nights like this, Celtic Park is as noisy and rowdy as a football ground could be, but the realpolitik of football in the 21st century remains as indomitable as ever. Celtic had their chances. Early in the second half, presented with a low cross when unmarked and six yards out, Diazen Maeda tried to shoot with both feet at the same time and ended up dribbling the ball feebly towards goal when he should have scored.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda seemed to be the motto of their evening. Celtic piled on pressure throughout the first half and the opening stages of the second, hitting the post through Callum McGregor, who was set up by Georgos Giakoumanis. They had other chances besides, and in an unexpected bonus Karim Benzema, Real’s arch-tormentor in this competition last season, limped from the pitch after half an hour to be replaced by European football’s forgotten man, Eden Hazard.
But Celtic couldn’t take their chances. The extent to which having a genuinely world-class striker would have benefited them cannot be understated. They had the energy and hard work to get the ball into attacking positions only for the shot to be too weak, or the final pass or run to be just a tiny bit off-key.
And against this calibre of opposition, the matter of Celtic having to take their chances goes some way beyond being a mere truism. When Real Madrid struck, they did so with maximum efficiency. All the composure in front of goal that Celtic so clearly lacked was clear and evident as Vinicius Jr and Luka Modric scored a goal each in less than five minutes. Hazard added a third.
Laser-targeted and ruthlessly efficient, Real Madrid settled into their familiarly comfortable swagger. A match that had felt like a contest for 50 minutes effectively ended as one in the space of five second-half minutes, and completely killed off with a quarter of an hour to play. Celtic Park fell quiet, hopes of a big European nights running aground against the reality of European club football’s inequalities.
The £100m players that Celtic simply cannot afford might have put this game beyond Real Madrid before they finally hauled themselves from their slumber. And proof of what could be achieved was seen elsewhere in the same group, with Shakhtar Donetsk winning 4-1 away to RB Leipzig. Earlier in the evening in a different group, Chelsea were given a bloody nose in Zagreb by Dinamo.
It can be done. The odds can be overturned. But Real Madrid are simply a different order to RB Leipzig or even Chelsea. They exist at the exact intersection of ego, absolute self-belief and ability, and it’s difficult to argue with such colossal ego when it bears fruit again and again. PSG, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Liverpool all tried to stop them last season. Every time, Real found a way through. It seems certain that they will be just as big a threat again this season.
And Celtic’s tournament doesn’t end with this defeat. Shakhtar’s win in Germany opens the group up in a somewhat unexpected way, and with third place still being good enough for a place in the latter stages of the Europa League, they still have a chance of qualification from the group stages, one way or another.
But on this particular evening, royalty prevailed. On the opening night of the 30th Champions League, the gaps between the wealthiest clubs and the rest is as great as ever, and the warning that Real Madrid sent out to the rest of Europe was pretty clear. If you don’t take your chances against them they will bite back, just as they did last season.
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