The optimism invoked by recently reaching a European final has long since subsided. Domestic bliss has proven elusive and though the exuberant support still ignites a resonant atmosphere on home-match day, apprehension has started to creep into the team. A manager well acquainted with the club has taken the reigns but has yet to establish his Europe credentials, a task that could prove imperative to retaining popularity among the support.
The synopsis could apply to either Atlético Madrid or Celtic and though the former are better poised to triumph in their imminent encounter, there is undeniably an unfortunate synergy here. Certainly many have forecast a dominant win for the Spaniards but their peculiar identity crisis could ultimately accommodate Celtic’s continental disorientation, affording them a much needed away point. Atlético may need to compose themselves quickly.
The Atlético Front
Of course, composure was not something which Atlético accomplished early enough last season. Their campaign to retain the Europa League trophy they won in 2010 was halted prematurely a year ago when they were eliminated at the group stage, placing 3rd in their group behind Bayer Leverkusen and Aris.
Domestically there was little consolation on offer. Helmed by newly appointed Quique Sánchez Flores, they placed 7th in La Liga, a modest improvement on the previous season (in which they placed 9th) but they never managed to achieve more than 2 consecutive victories. The Copa del Rey, perhaps Atlético’s only viable avenue for domestic silverware, hosted further disappointment when, at the quarter-final stage, eventual winners Real Madrid precociously brushed aside their city rivals, 4-1 on aggregate.
This season thus far has yielded disillusionment and encouragement in equal measure. The new manager of the rojiblancos, Gregorio Manzano (hired in the wake of Flores’ departure), seems to have cultivated a more authoritative incarnation of Atlético, in Europe at least. Norway’s Stromsgodset were defeated 4-1 on aggregate and Guimaraes of Portugal were subsequently subject to similar treatment, losing 6-0 over two legs against the Madrid outfit.
Yet, such explicit dominance has been conspicuously lacking from Atlético in the league thus far. Their first two league encounters have consisted of a drab 0-0 affair against Osasuna followed by a 1-0 loss away to Valencia. Their goal drought on Spanish soil should perhaps be attributed to the ubiquitous departures of Diego Forlán and Sergio Aguero who, over the course of their 4 seasons together, collectively netted some 191 goals.
However, the extortionate acquisition of erstwhile Porto forward Ramadel Falcao could remedy this predicament. With 73 goals in 84 appearances for the blue and white he cuts a perfect candidate to compensate for the absence of the lethal duo. His supporting cast is equally formidable too. Captained by the highly capable and mobile full-back Antonio López, the squad boasts the likes of; José Antonio Reyes who, at 28, could prove problematic for Celtic, with incisive attacking movement;Álvaro Domínguez, a defensive prospect of the specimen that Celtic are often courting; and Tiago Mendes, a seasoned midfielder, formerly of Juventus, whose versatility could render him difficult to prepare for.
The Celtic Front
Of late, the Scottish media has committed a lot of time to dwelling on an encounter (or perhaps clash is a better word) between Atlético Madrid and Celtic that took place over 30 years ago. Relevant though the controversies of the match are to a contingent’s long term grudge, study of more recent history will likely be paramount to on-field prosperity for the Parkhead club.
Los verdiblancos, as they are often referred to in the Spanish media, have lately had something of a torrid time when venturing beyond Scottish borders. Celtic have not participated in a Champions League since 2009 and attempts to qualify have grown increasingly futile. The Europa league briefly offered sanctuary of consolation but after elimination from the group stage in 2009 (they placed 3rd behind Hapoel Tel Aviv and Hamburg) qualification even for this competition has proven problematic.
Last season’s play-off defeat against Utrecht was a sobering affair, reminding many that the squad’s rejuvenation under freshly appointed Lennon was still in its genesis. Having recruited some 16 players in just one season, by the summer of 2011 the Celtic team was scarcely reminiscent of the one the Northern-Irishman inherited from his predecessor, Tony Mowbray.
Yet, a certain coherence has been forged among Lennon’s class of ’11. Admittedly, the team failed to prevent Rangers triumphing in the league for a third consecutive season but the momentum of Lennon’s first trophy (the Scottish Cup) and another summer of thrifty yet tactically shrewd signings rendered the optimism prior to the Europa League qualifier against F.C. Sion somewhat warranted.
Of course, that all ultimately mattered little. Celtic were comprehensively defeated but were granted a reprieve following what may be regarded by the Celtic faithful as a fortuitous technicality. Arguments regarding the legitimacy of their advancement will undoubtedly be interminable but the significance of the imminent clash with Atlético very much persists: Celtic have been given a second chance.
And they do have a chance, albeit one which is regarded as slim by many accounts, and there are lingering positives. Whilst Atlético’s league opening has been bereft of goals Celtic have exhibited an impressive scoring prowess, currently boasting the best goal record in the Scottish Premier League. Indeed, Lennon’s tenure thus far has been decorated by an impressive scoring pedigree as evidenced by the club’s 85 goals last season, their highest total in 5 years.
Furthermore, whilst Atlético shake and shuffle to assemble their sans Aguero-Forlán team, Celtic’s forward pairing have been flourishing. Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes have collectively accumulated 47 goals over the past year and, though a lone striker in Georgios Samaras is often the favoured approach by Neil Lennon in more tactically complex encounters, such pragmatism may not be the most fruitful tact, as evidence by previous failures. Fielding two strikers is of course risky in an away European tie but who knows how many more opportunities Celtic will have to experiment in such an environment.
So, will Madrid’s late September sun highlight Celtic’s ever diminishing European status? Or will it direct Atlético back to the drawing board? What’s certain is that the Spanish Capital will be the exhilarating venue for something that has become rather a rarity for Scottish team’s of late: a true European night on exotic foreign soil. But, while this may be a somewhat novel experience, the Vicente Calderón always offers a scintillating atmosphere on European nights. Celtic fans will be faintly acquainted with that, at least.