THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Celtic v Benfica, 7.45pm

icon goodbyerangers19 September ~ Celtic return to the Champions League group stages tonight with a home match against Benfica. It has been four seasons since they last competed at this level. Scotland's UEFA coefficient has plummeted over that time, meaning multiple qualifying rounds. Celtic's coefficient has fallen more slowly which, combined with Michel Platini's "champions' route" of qualification, resulted in a reasonable draw this season. Qualification wasn't a forgone conclusion. The results against HJK Helsinki and Helsingborgs were surprisingly emphatic and a reminder that the Scottish champions still punch above their nation's weight.

The doom-mongers would have you believe that Scottish clubs are routinely losing to teams from smaller countries but Celtic's aggregate results of 4-1 and 4-0 against the champions of Finland and Sweden tell a different story.

The mood at Celtic is one of excitement and relative optimism. Absence from the group stages has brought back the awe and wonder that the repetitive, predictable structure squeezes out of the competition. Celtic may not be facing anyone they haven't played in Europe in the last decade but the spirit is similar to when they knocked out Ajax to return to the Europe's top competition 11 years ago.

As well as Benfica, they'll be facing Barcelona and Spartak Moscow. Celtic are fourth seeds, with an inexperienced manager and an inexperienced team. The harsh reality of Scottish football finance means they are a selling club; their turnover – even with average attendances of 50,000 and income from the Champions League – is lower than any English Premier League club's television income. Despite that, finishing second in this group shouldn't be considered beyond this current Celtic team, while third place and a drop into the Europa League knockout stages would be the best bet for a prolonged European adventure.

Even if they lose every game the Champions League will make Celtic even more financially dominant in Scotland. The predictable implications for the domestic league will bring up the political hot potato that is redistribution of income again. There are no easy answers but decision makers need to display uncharacteristic imagination and long-term vision. The notoriously uncompetitive SPL damages Celtic in the long-run just like it does everyone else in Scotland.

Celtic fans can be forgiven for ignoring the bigger picture just now – European nights at Celtic Park are back. The old man who told me in Milan in 2007 that he was glad Celtic were out of Europe because he couldn't afford any more away games has probably already sorted out his Russian visa. Mark Poole

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