From Hamilton to Barcelona: Welcome to Celtic’s skewed world

Michael Walker: It’s a balancing act of domestic domination and European inspiration

Hamilton Academical's record transfer fee, as you probably know, is the £180,000 or so paid to Czech club Sigma Olomouc for their goalkeeper Tomas Cerny almost a decade ago. Paris St-Germain's record transfer fee, which you may not have heard about, is the £199m paid over to Barcelona for Neymar this summer.

Celtic were at Hamilton Academical in the Scottish Premiership last night. On Tuesday they face Paris St-Germain in the Champions League. It could be argued that one is no preparation for the other.

This is the skewed world Celtic inhabit, and have done for years, but while it is natural to focus on the polar opposites Celtic can encounter in domestic and European football – they beat Kilmarnock 6-1 last season before facing Manchester City – the champions of Scotland are not alone.

While they were on the way to Hamilton on the south-eastern outskirts of Glasgow last night, PSG were heading east across France to Metz. After four games of France’s Ligue 1 season PSG were top with four wins and Metz were bottom with four defeats. PSG had scored 14 goals, Metz had scored one. In terms of preparation, PSG might have preferred a night out in Hamilton.


In Italy, meanwhile, Juventus ready themselves for the trip to Barcelona next week having faced Chievo, who finished 48 points behind the Italian champions last season. Juve have won the last six Serie A titles and the joke is it’s now called “Serie J”.

It is another example of the lop-sided nature of so much of football and the big, unfunny irony is that Uefa prize money and its spin-off sponsorship income is a central part of the explanation.

So Celtic’s balancing act of domestic domination and European inspiration is not unique. Even to call it a balancing act is probably too strong. Celtic have moved so far ahead of the rest in Scotland economically – and thus competitively – that they could thrash Rangers 5-1 last season before their opening group game at Barcelona.

What happened next, of course, was that Barcelona scored 7 – “brackets, seven” – at the Nou Camp.

That was an unfair scoreline in the sense that Celtic could have made it 1-1 in the 24th minute only for Moussa Dembele to fluff his penalty-kick, but the "Men against Bhoys" cliché was in use after that and Neymar was one of the Barca scorers.

It was a night that raised questions about the entire competition and the role of clubs such as Celtic in it. Celtic, and the likes of Anderlecht are too important historically, and today, to be walk-on actors in someone else’s drama.

The Champions League can look like a party with three or four different entrances.

Yet that is how it can feel. The Champions League can look like a party with three or four different entrances. This is not all Uefa’s fault, despite their part in re-enforcing it, but the world changed when the Berlin Wall fell and the idea, never mind the fact, of wealth redistribution has struggled to gain a foothold amid an overwhelming tide of globalisation.

To their credit Celtic recovered some credibility and prestige in the group post-Barcelona, but it was still noted that when Brendan Rodgers made an appearance in Belfast last weekend he laughed when saying his immediate aim in Europe this season is to "try not to lose the first game 7-0".

Beyond that, more seriously, Rodgers said being in Europe after Christmas is a realistic ambition. As they go for seven-in-a-row in Scotland, where they have not lost a league game since May 2016, pre-Rodgers, and where they collected a treble in the Antrim man’s first season, Celtic should be able to focus on Europe while taking care of domestic issues.

Nevertheless, that does not guarantee progress. Celtic have been drawn against PSG – winners of the previous four Ligue 1 titles until last season, and the biggest-spending club in the world currently; Bayern Munich – winners of the last five Bundesliga titles; and Anderlecht – who have won five of the last eight Belgium championships, including last season’s.

The after-Christmas target Rodgers mentioned includes the Europa League caveat – if Celtic come third in this Champions League group they filter into the Europa League. Even so, finishing third was beyond Celtic last season when they had two giants – Barcelona and Manchester City – plus Borussia Monchengladbach in their group. Anderlecht will be considered this season’s Gladbach.

Anderlecht were eliminated in the Champions League qualifiers last season, though they went on to push Manchester United in the Europa League quarter-final. But the Belgian champions keep selling asset after asset and their uncertain start to the domestic season offers hope to Celtic.

The presence of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe at Parkhead also offers fresh excitement to next Tuesday. We stand in our jaded knowledge that PSG and the Champions League represent the extremes of football in a skewed world where the next visitors to Celtic are Ross County. But we will cross the road to watch it.

Zidane and Real Madrid happy to stay pat in transfer market

Real Madrid are going for a hat-trick of European Cups, having been the first club of the Champions League era to successfully defend their trophy. Real begin at home to Apoel Nicosia next Wednesday. Even at 4/1, before a ball is kicked in a nine-month competition, the odds look tempting.

Rewind one month and Real's superiority over Manchester United in the Super Cup was ominous. For once there has been no new Galactico this summer in Madrid – though Mbappe's signature would have been welcomed – and in fact Real have made a profit in the transfer market. The sale of Alvaro Morata to Chelsea accounts for much of it.

Presumably - understandably – part of the reason is economic: Real Madrid have been lavish year upon year. But – also understandably – manager Zinedine Zidane is content with the squad he has. At a time when Barcelona are shaky, and with a Nou Camp hierarchy seemingly desperate for a new Galactico of their own, Zidane has assessed his brilliant, formidable starting XI, the club's youth system and released talents of the scale of Morata and James Rodriguez (on loan).

This is the sort of homegrown, mature and patient policy which Real Madrid were accused of lacking during Barca’s La Masia era.

The Real Madrid president Florentino Perez can stand this on its head in any transfer window of course, but if he is willing to trust Zidane, then Real are the team to beat.

They have also been drawn with Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham. One imagines Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric and the rest will be quite keen to demonstrate their prowess at Wembley against Spurs in November. It is their kind of stage.