We’re only in mid-August, but a crushing 2-1 defeat away to AEK Athens in the second leg of the Champions League third qualifying round has cast a dark cloud over Celtic’s season.
Improvement in Europe’s premier club competition was set to be the barometer by which Scotland’s Treble champions were to be judged this term. But an exit prior to the group stage, forcing them to settle for a Europa League berth, means few can argue Celtic are moving in the right direction.
Despite scooping every domestic prize available since arriving north of the border in 2016, our friends at Football Whispers look at how the end of Brendan Rodgers’ reign at Celtic Park might be approaching.
Celtic faced an uphill battle from the start in Athens on Tuesday night, following a 1-1 draw at home in the first leg.
Record signing Odsonne Edouard was ruled out with a knock, Belgian international centre-back Dedryck Boyata was left out amid speculation surrounding his future and Kristoffer Ajer was suspended – hardly ideal preparation for a crunch encounter away in Europe, with Champions League progression on the line.
And things quickly got worse for Celtic when they found themselves 1-0 down on the night, making it 2-1 to the Greek side on aggregate, less than eight minutes after kick-off.
When Marko Livaja added to Rodrigo Galo’s strike in the second half, Celtic’s task became near insurmountable. They needed two unanswered goals in order to book their place in the next round on away goals; they managed only one, with Scott Sinclair scoring 12 minutes from time.
Celtic fans might have anticipated their side applying sustained pressure upon the opposition for what remained of the game after Sinclair’s strike, but the Bhoys struggled to generate the momentum required to consistently trouble AEK’s goal, limping to elimination.
After the game, Rodgers made pointed comments about the club’s lack of transfer spend this summer, feeling they have not made the necessary moves to build upon their recent success.
“It’s pretty obvious, you have to keep progressing and you have to keep getting stronger,” the former Liverpool manager told BBC Sportsround.
“What we’ve done in the two years has made other clubs and other teams become stronger.
“You only have to look at Liverpool who’ve got to the Champions League final then went and invested the money they have to become stronger.
“It’s not rocket science. You have to always guard against becoming complacent and the way you do that is by adding to the squad. There’s players that we’ve kept, but obviously getting other players in.”
The defeat means Celtic will not participate in the Champions League proper for the first time in Rodgers’ reign.
The 45-year-old tactician is clearly growing frustrated with the club’s lack of signings and will be wary of overseeing a backward step in the team’s development.
Celtic’s dominance domestically is such that the Scottish Premiership title is regarded as the bare-minimum target each season, with the addition of the League Cup and FA Cup, having won the lot in each of the last two years, now also taken for granted.
So all that is left to achieve for Rodgers at Celtic is genuine progress in Europe. While in Scotland the side from Glasgow’s East End are the financial powerhouse, that is far from the case continentally, therefore no one expects the Hoops to go all the way in the Champions League.
But what is needed is a demonstration that they will not accept whipping-boy status, that the first knockout round should not be viewed as an unattainable promised land.
Rodgers has delivered so many trophies, produced such dynamic, entertaining football in his two seasons at Parkhead that sacking him in light of the AEK slip-up should not be a remote consideration.
But if the club cannot show the means and inclination to back his efforts to make genuine progress, it might not be long before Rodgers decides to move on.
*Odds subject to change