Sunday, March 20, 2016

Can Scottish clubs mount a European comeback starting this summer?

The world of European club football (soccer) is weird to an American, and I continue to find Scotland an interesting lens through which to view it.

Last year I explored various scenarios where Scottish teams performed better, and their country ranking (currently mired in the 20s) improved enough to give better placement in the Champions League and Europa League. I got pretty deep into the weeds, but the main thing that needs to happen is that Celtic needs to have run of decent performances (unlike this year), and the other clubs need not to get knocked out of the Europa League quite so early.

On the other clubs' ability to do that, I think the key is restoring a vexing quality of the Scottish game -- inequality. The Scottish game is famously unequal -- the last time a team other than Celtic or Rangers won the top league was 1985. That's one of the quirks that first intrigued me.

But while inequality may seem like less fun for fans of the league, I think it may be the key to European success. You see, the last few years have seen one low-budget Scottish team after another luck into a European place and then flame out to a more experienced side from another small country.

There are five clubs in Scotland that are bigger than all the others -- Celtic, Rangers, Hearts, Hibs and Aberdeen. They are the biggest sides in the biggest cities. If they can get good, they will have the funding to both compete in Europe and to return good teams consistently, so they develop some European experience.

Unfortunately, consistency has only really been Celtic's friend lately. Three of the clubs were in the second-tier Championship last year, and two still are (although maybe not for long). That said, this year looks promising, and I'd like to explore the fun possibilities, before they get overtaken by a particular reality.

The good news is that three of the European places go to the top three teams in the top league, and those three slots are solidly occupied by three big clubs (Celtic, Aberdeen and Hearts). It might be problematic if Aberdeen steals the title away from Celtic, but that seems less likely after today. (I've given this far too much thought, but although a second-place Celtic might help Scotland's coefficient just as much with Europa League excellence, the financial hit they'd take would damage their chances of competing in future years.)

Celtic has been in Europe ever year since 1995, and in the Champions League fourteen out of the last fifteen years, so their pedigree is without peer. Aberdeen has made it to the third round of Europa League qualifying two years in a row, so they have as much European experience as any non-Celtic club. Hearts is four years removed from European competition, but the club that has emerged from the flames of their relegation seems to be one of the best-run ones in Scotland. I have high hopes for them, if not this year, then to be back in future years.

It's the fourth European place that seems most curious. The other place is given to the Scottish Cup winner. There are four teams left in Scottish Cup contention. If Celtic wins the whole thing, their place would be bumped down to the fourth-place team in the league, which is currently St. Johnstone. They are currently riding a streak of four Europa League appearances, but they got knocked out immediately in two of them, and only advanced one round in the other two. Their three wins, four losses and five draws did not add much to Scotland's coefficient. (The coefficient of 17.3 dip slightly below 16 if they had simply forfeited all games, still leaving Scotland #25 in Europe.) They've had their chance, but I guess if you had to throw a low-budget team in there, they might finally get something out of their experience.

Another possibility is that Dundee United could lift the Scottish Cup. That would be weird, as they seem almost certain to be relegated. Having a Championship side play in the Europa League would be...uh, interesting, but probably not successful.

Speaking of Championship sides, the other two teams left in are Rangers and Hibs, the two largest clubs who are down in the second-tier. Rangers will almost certainly be promoted, and there's a decent chance Hibs wins the promotion playoff, so I actually find these the most intriguing possibilities. Either could kick off their return to the top-flight by trying to make a run in the Europa League. It could motivate them to spend wisely on their team, if they have an additional way of making a splash.

We'll see. I'll report back later this year, when it may turn out to be some other team, if Celtic wins the Cup and St. Johnstone's stumbles.
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