Scottish clubs in Europe: From unholy mess to the Holy Grail

Rangers & Celtic celebrate
Both Rangers and Celtic top their Europa League groups with a game to go

Three years ago, Scottish football was in freefall in European terms.

Champions League participation was just a dream for Celtic at that stage, while those who ventured into Europa League qualification were knocked out quicker than you could say 'coefficient'.

Speaking of which, Scotland's was a paltry 25th in the rankings, behind the heavyweights of Israel, Belarus and Cyprus. The landscape was a grim sight.

However, something cataclysmic is in danger of taking place. After mesmeric runs and a glut of scalps by both Celtic and Rangers, Scotland are soaring in 15th place and currently heading for an extra Champions League spot in 2021-22.

It has gone from an unholy mess to touching distance of the Holy Grail.

The mess in Malmo & Pedro in a hedge

There were a series of calamities that dragged Scotland to that grim position in 2016, with the finger pointed in various directions.

The previous summer was a gloomy affair. Ronny Deila's Celtic were breached four times by Malmo on the way to a 4-3 aggregate Champions League play-off loss, before a fruitless Europa League campaign.

Kairat ousted Aberdeen. Romania's Astra Giurgiu did for Inverness Caledonian Thistle. St Johnstone? Embarrassed by Alashkert of Armenia.

As the Brendan Rodgers era swept in and Celtic went on to achieve Champions League qualification in consecutive seasons, matters improved, but only slightly.

Heavy defeats by Barcelona, Paris St-Germain and Bayern Munich were meted out, while Rangers' reintroduction to Europe didn't as much go with a bang but a nuclear explosion.

In the picturesque city of Luxembourg, they suffered what some claimed was the worst European defeat by any Scottish club - and that's some tag.

Progres Niederkorn knocked Rangers out of Europe and left manager Pedro Caixinha in a hedge remonstrating with furious punters post match.

Ominous starts to outstanding displays

It is said that a week is a long time in politics. In Scottish football, even a fleeting European campaign can seem like a decade.

Even this summer, signs of the breaking of a new dawn took a while to emerge. Kilmarnock had waited 18 years to be back in Europe but it took just a week for them to get turfed out by Welsh part-timers Connah's Quay Nomads.

Aberdeen, now regulars in European competition, were hammered 4-0 by Croatia's Rijeka, the second leg being played out at a dispirited and half-empty Pittodrie.

The carrying of the European can fell to Celtic and Rangers. Neil Lennon's champions stumbled, falling with an almighty thud at the feet of Cluj to tumble from Champions League qualifying.

Rangers, meanwhile, were continuing to appear formidable under Steven Gerrard, exorcising the ghost of Niederkorn past to make the Europa League group stages along with their city rivals.

What has happened since has been spell-binding stuff from both. Ten games played, six wins, just a single defeat, while both top their respective groups.

Big names have been tamed by the Scottish pair, too. Porto, Feyenoord, Lazio and Rennes have all been accounted for. Celtic's qualification for the last 32 was achieved with gusto, Rangers', barring a calamity, is surely in the post with a home tie against Young Boys to come.

How have they done it?

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Setting up smartly in Europe. Under Rodgers, Celtic were a formidable force in the league. More silver than Long John's family tree was gathered by the Northern Irishman, yet the criticism of not adapting his expansive style enough in Europe was levelled on more than one occasion.

Across 12 group stages games in two seasons, 34 goals were haemorrhaged. Only seven scored.

Under Lennon's guidance, it has been a different story. The caveat is that we are talking Europa League and not Champions League, but it's clear the Celtic manager's team has a rigidity, discipline and structure suited to the European game. Just four goals conceded in this group stage, and 10 scored.

For Rangers, Gerrard's results in Europe continue to be a revelation. The former Liverpool captain, who was a rookie manager at the fledgling stage of Rangers' exploits last season, has amassed an incredible record. In 27 games, he's won 13, and lost three - none of those defeats at Ibrox.

They were also through to the last 32 for around 25 minutes on Thursday. In the electric atmosphere of De Kuip in Rotterdam, Rangers somehow turned the game around to have Feyenoord on the ropes, only to be pegged back. Again Gerrard got the best of his group.

Extra Champions League place?

Coefficient

Now for the complicated bit. As things stand, that extra Champions League place will be Scotland's if they can keep a firm hold on that 15th spot in the coefficient ranking table.

You would not bet against them doing so, either. With two teams still in continental competition and at least one guaranteed to be playing after Christmas, there are still plenty of coefficient points to be claimed.

To help matters, Cyprus and Greece, the two nations immediately on Scotland's tail, only have one club left each. Looking upwards, the Czech Republic in 14th are not too far out of reach either.

Progress has indeed been made. Scottish football knows one swallow does not make a summer, but perhaps, just perhaps, the winter of European football discontent may finally be thawing.

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