Celtic have won 2 of their last 34 European away games. That statistic will be echoed across every British newspaper on the eve of their critical Champions League clash with Helsingborgs IF. Such a statistic, without proper context, is incredibly misleading.
The losses to Artmedia, Copenhagen, Aalborg, Hapoel Tel Aviv, Braga and Utrecht were far from results that the Celtic fans will be proud of. Yet failure to win against Arsenal, Atlético Madrid, Barcelona (x2), Bayern Munich, Benfica (x2), Lyon, Manchester United (x2), Milan (x2), and Villarreal (x2) is no great disgrace. Celtic's poor away record, has in part been sustained due to many years of Champions League success, which in turn led to quality opponents. They also have a rather impressive record of playing winners in eventual tournaments (Barcelona, AC Milan, Manchester United and Atlético Madrid), which would do little for their chances of an away European win. However, in their last three away games, they beat Helsinki, and drew with Udinese and Rennes. It was only the width of the post and comical own goal which prevented victory in the latter two games. In recent years Celtic have drawn in the Nou Camp, were beaten in extra time by a wonder goal in the San Siro, and gained a credible score-draw on an artificial pitch in Moscow. European away failure is tinged with moments of incredible accomplishment.
Another issue I have with this statistic is that it is incorrect. Celtic have actually won 3 of the last 34 European away games. The Sion result, which should not be celebrated as a triumph, was certainly affected by the presence of ineligible players. It currently stands in the record books as a 3-0 win. Sion were warned well beforehand and their punishment was far from a surprise. This might be a minor gripe, but it could be used to show that Celtic have lost 1, drawn 2 and won 2 of their last 5 European away games. Hardly evidence of apocalyptic form.
Yet, what is truly frustrating is the amalgamation of leagues games and aggregate games into one statistic. The formats are fundamentally different. A team's mentality will be completely altered depending on which of these formats they are competing in. When Celtic were 3-0 up against FK Teplice, their concern was not with getting a win in the away leg, and possibly exposing themselves in defence, but in attaining the aggregate result required. That 1-0 loss is ultimately irrelevant but it is included in such statistics. These concerns are particularly pertinent when in an aggregate tie, the away game is first. Under that scenario a score draw is a good result. I bet, given the option of bringing the game back to Celtic Park and 60,000 behind the team, Neil Lennon would fancy his chances. Every aggregate game is different. Each tie should be considered on their own merit rather than the number of wins that the respective teams have attained. In a derby game 'the form book is thrown out of the window'. That is the type of attitude that statistics should be treated with in aggregate games.
Celtic's record is actually in line with the rest of Scotland's. Rangers, for instance, have won 1 of their last 22 European games, home and away. For the same reasons though, that is useless statistic. Many of those games were aggregate games that Rangers progressed in, and some were against the likes of Barcelona and Manchester United. Many Celtic fans feel that Rangers failure to win in Europe has not been reported to their liking in the media. I am sure they can solace themselves with the fact that Rangers will be unable to change that record for the next three years. However, to my mind it isn't bias that will see this statistic repeated. If anything, all of Scotland will be behind Celtic. Motherwell and Hearts have incredibly poor chances of European progression, meaning that Scottish coefficient could rest solely with Celtic. Instead, I would blame a culture of playing down Scottish football which seemingly pervades the domestic mass-media. Over the last few years Scottish football has been stripped of any semblance of a feel-good factor. Poorly cited and ultimately irrelevant statistics are simply further evidence of that culture. Positivity alone will not help Scottish teams progress in Europe but unwarranted pessimism does nothing to help them.