This time, last year, I was writing as my beloved Celtic, against all odds, triumphed into the last 16 of the Champions League. This year, the dream is already over by Matchday Five. Yet, my thoughts are not of sorrow but simply that this season's Champions League was not all that different to 2012's successes. With three points after five games, bottom of our group and no European football after Christmas, that might look like a contentious statement, however I believe that the difference was not Hooper, Wanyama or tactical nous but a series of small moments that turned the tide of Celtic's season. Let me present three examples from last year's campaign.
- Celtic's victory against Barcelona: A famous night. The best I've ever seen at Celtic Park. But let's say that Xavi does not try a karate kick from a Fraser Forster clear out, which lead to Watt's second goal. In general, Celtic were saved by their keeper making a series of unbelievable saves
- Celtic's win against Spartak at home: Celtic needed to win this game to progress to the last 16, although they required a questionable late penalty. The penalty itself was only converted due to a deflection from the underside of the bar.
- Barcelona's draw at home with Benfica: Barcelona turn in a wretched performance, in a game that if Benfica had won, they would have qualified for the last 16 instead of Celtic. Benfica missed at least four one-on-one chances, including one in the 90th minute.
And in this campaign, Celtic have been subjected to a great deal of misfortune in these 'small moments'. What if Mulgrew's header is not so wayward late on against Barcelona? What if Zapata's shot had not been wildly deflected in Milan? Games, seasons and even careers can be changed by these tiny moments. Van Dijk and Boerrigter had golden opportunities on Tuesday night, but were mere inches from converting them. This group could have looked so different.
Celtic were also disadvantaged by external results in this year's group. Barcelona's inability to win in Milan or Amsterdam gave our main competitors a significant advantage. Last season, the fact that Spartak beat Benfica at home meant that Celtic were not punished for their inability to beat Benfica home or away. Such logic explains why Chelsea, who failed to have a shot on target during the entirety of their match versus Basle, have qualified with nine points, but Arsenal could still be in the Europa League with twelve points. How the other sides square-off is crucial in tournament football.
The point is that games are remembered by their results rather than their quality. Celtic may have lost Wanyama and Hooper, but this campaign could easily have been like 2012. The team's performances, with the exception of Ajax away, have to my mind at least, been better than that of last season. The difference was simply the outcome. Sport is a game of chance, and whilst success can be attributed to many factors, sometimes these small moments can be the only difference.