The Europa League group stage might be a turn-off for some, but for Celtic it is a valuable platform on which to measure themselves and Neil Lennon’s side can take plenty of positives from a 1-1 draw away to French Cup winners Rennes on Thursday.
The Glasgow giants again missed out on a place in the Champions League group stage this season but their point in Brittany, secured thanks to a Ryan Christie second-half penalty, is an ideal start in Group E, which also features Lazio and CFR Cluj.
Celtic had to come from behind after conceding to M’Baye Niang’s 38th-minute spot-kick for the home side, and they ended the game with 10 men as substitute Vakoun Issouf Bayo was sent off in injury time.
A draw at Roazhon Park is better than Paris Saint-Germain managed as they went down 2-1 here last month, while Arsenal were beaten on this ground last season.
It was a result to be proud of for Celtic’s boisterous, sunburnt supporters who brought the city to a standstill on a mass march to the stadium earlier in the day.
“I have got to be satisfied to come away from home and play very strongly against a good side. It speaks volumes for the character and the quality of the team,” said Lennon, who also thought his team could have had another penalty in the game.
“I am delighted with the performance, and I know we can improve as well as we go along. It was really important in the opening game in the group. We have a lot to look forward to.”
Celtic’s next opponents will be Cluj, the Romanians who ousted them in the third qualifying round of the Champions League, the second season running in which they have fallen at that hurdle.
That has major consequences financially for the Scottish champions, whose revenue broke through the £100 million ($125 million) mark for the first time last year on the back of their appearance in the 2017-18 Champions League group phase.
That campaign was marred by heavy defeats at the hands of PSG and Bayern Munich, and in truth this competition is Celtic’s level now.
For a club who are former European Cup winners that can still be hard to take, especially when facing a Rennes side whose run to the last 16 of the Europa League last season represented their best ever showing in continental competition.
According to France Football, Rennes have a budget of 65 million euros ($71.9 million) for this season and so Celtic should be able to compete with them on the field as they did here.
“It’s great, it’s something obviously we want to improve as we go along,” the Northern Irishman said of their improved away form in Europe.
He was full of praise for centre-back Christopher Jullien and striker Odsonne Edouard, two big-money buys from Ligue 1 who were back on home soil here.
Edouard, he pointed out, “is only 21 and he takes on a huge responsibility being the main striker at a club as big as this.”
Having sold Moussa Dembele to Lyon for a huge profit last year, Celtic may not be able to keep hold of Edouard much longer either.
Nevertheless, Brendan Rodgers’s successor hopes this result can have an effect on the club similar to the last time they came to Rennes.
Lennon oversaw a 1-1 draw here in the 2011-12 Europa League before taking the Hoops to the Champions League last 16 in the following campaign.
“This team is superior to the team we had maybe seven or eight years ago and I think there is more experience at this level,” he mused.
“And off the back of what the players have achieved domestically over the last three or four years we have the makings of a good side.”