THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Face tough task in Champions League

icon clgiants18 September ~ It's almost obligatory to refer to Celtic's Champions League group – Barcelona, Milan and Ajax – as the "group of death". But Milan describe it more poetically, as the "group of nobility". Every club in it is a former European Cup winner, with 16 titles between them. Only one of those titles is Celtic's, but to be considered an integral part of such a collective is gratifying. Yet while Barcelona and Milan continue to exert the power of royalty, we kings of small countries are now aristocracy in name only.

I've never felt sympathy for aristocrats who suddenly find themselves having to work for a living, but my support of a football club from the East End of Glasgow has given me a small insight into their frustration. We're just grateful to be at the banquet.

Not that UEFA make us feel particularly welcome. Once again the champions of Sweden were among the teams we had to knock out to get here. Our prize for providing one of the most remarkable atmospheres and results of last year, when we beat Barcelona and then qualified for the last 16 ahead of Benfica, was an extra qualifying round followed by a place in the fourth pot of seeds.

Twenty per cent of our weighting is determined by other Scottish clubs' European performances and our victories against Barcelona and Spartak Moscow count for no more ranking points than Manchester United got for beating Braga or Arsenal's wins over Montpellier.

And our good performances last year have arguably cost us our two most effective players. Victor Wanyama – the best player in that Barcelona game – and Gary Hooper have both moved to England. There's nothing we can do to hold on to players who have demonstrated that they're ready to move to a bigger league. Regular centre-back Kelvin Wilson has also left. We were competing in Europe before the transfer window closed and we're still rebuilding.

Some of our new signings – notably centre-back Virgil van Dijk, winger Derk Boerrigter (signed from Ajax) and striker Teemu Pukki – are already showing promise, but it's too soon to know for sure how they'll do. Maybe we can perform above expectations again, like we did last season. Maybe we won't. I'll be more than happy if we finish third and get a chance to carry on for as long as we can in the Europa League.

First up is the trip to Milan, bringing back memories of 2007, when we took them to extra time in the last 16 before Kaká scored a dramatic solo effort. He's back at Milan now but is injured, as are Stephan El Shaarawy, Ignazio Abate and Riccardo Montolivo. Apparently this is a good time to play Milan. Just don't mention Mario Balotelli or Alessandro Matri, who scored against us twice for Juventus last season.

I could complain about the Sisyphean task of having such a difficult group yet again, in spite of how well we did last season, but this is the stage we want to compete on. Please excuse me, however, if I watch from between my fingers. Mark Poole

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