Declining Celtic must re-evaluate ambitions
Writing post-mortems on Celtic in Europe gets ever more challenging because the cause of death remains the same no matter how often you look at it.
Vulnerability in defence, lack of steel in midfield, little accuracy in possession, a tendency to lose the plot and to lose goals as a consequence, too many players doing too little for too long.
All of those ailments have been with them pretty much every step of their European journey.
In Istanbul, the deficiencies weren't punished to the max, but the point gained, while breaking the losing narrative, was like a plaster on a gaping wound. The 1-1 draw against Fenerbahce was commendable, but it did little to take the dirty look off the group table now that the wheat has been separated from the chaff.
Raking the ashes
The positives are not plentiful. Kieran Tierney is undoubtedly the biggest one. The young full-back is a find, a player to gladden Celtic's heart in a time when so few do. Jozo Simunovic was an expensive acquisition and looks to have promise. Leigh Griffiths, his Ajax mishap apart, has been excellent. Others have played decently in pockets of games. Too few pockets, too little impact.
If you're trawling for positives, Kris Commons is one. Evergreen, in every sense. Commons scored his 90th goal for Celtic on Thursday night. The calculation of his number of assists is still being worked on but it's somewhere north of 60.
He has scored four goals and has two assists in his five Europa League games in the group. As a scorer and provider he is prodigious. The wonder is that he hasn't always been appreciated at Celtic Park, not least by his manager, who has stuck him on the bench far too often while others, who have underperformed, have taken on the status of a protected species.
Celtic need Commons not just on the field, but off it. Some saw his uprising in Molde as unprofessional, his railing at his manager and his assistant manager, John Collins, as a lack of respect. Maybe. But what's to respect when you're getting annihilated by Norway's sixth best team?
Anger and frustration tumbled out of him. It's as it should be. Commons has the psyche of a winner. Too many around him don't have the same hunger or, you suspect, the same hurt when it goes wrong.
Celtic lack a lot of things. Characters is one of them. They need more doughty individuals, more leaders. They are callow. A soft touch. There is a sameness about their midfield; honest tryers who huff and puff and don't get much done.
There needs to be a reappraisal of Stefan Johansen, whose use of the ball is oftentimes calamitous in Europe. There needs to be a serious piece of self-examination higher up in the club as to how they have come to a situation whereby they have one realistic option up front, namely, Griffiths.
Nadir Ciftci is second in line. He had played 96 minutes of football since mid-October before his elevation to the first team in Istanbul. And he looked it. Celtic need more firepower, more creativity, more solidity. Standards have slipped a long way in the last few seasons.
There was a time when the uplifting music of George Frideric Handel rang around Celtic Park on Champions League nights. Alas, those tumultuous evenings have gone and they might be a while in coming back.
The signature tune of late has been that of Yohann Zveig, composer of the Europa League anthem, but even Zveig is not going to be heard in the east end for Glasgow for quite some time now that Celtic's winless, and largely joyless, campaign has come to an end.
Six games, three draws and no victories. Rock bottom of their pool with only three clubs from the other 47 involved in the group stages with a worse record in terms of number of goals conceded. In the business of daft goals shipped, Celtic could lay a serious claim to being the pre-eminent soft-touch.
It was fitting, in a grim way, that the last one they conceded was more slapstick than any of the ones that preceded it.
Celtic's players have issued as many apologies for their performances as they have won points in this group. An apology from Virgil van Dijk after the failure in Malmo, an apology from Griffiths after the loss to Ajax and another apology from Johansen on Thursday for his team's all-round deficiencies and, presumably, for their inability to stop self-harming on the football pitch.
Ronny Deila has been in charge of Celtic for 14 Europa League games. His win ratio is 14%. He has been in charge for 26 European matches in total, including qualifiers against some cannon fodder. His win ratio is 31%.
These numbers are an illustration of what Celtic have become. They reflect a lot of things: downsizing in budgets, downsizing in ability, inexperience, a lack of resilience, a lack of concentration, an existence of fear, as Johansen said in the wake of Thursday night.
All of that and more. Deila says his team is rebuilding and that next season will see an improvement. That's what he said last season.
Celtic have much to ponder. They need to ask themselves what are they about now? What is the scale of their ambition? They will not accept that they are an irrelevance in Europe these days, but that is what they have been allowed to become. There are some strange messages coming out of the place.
Collins claimed, surreally, that Celtic were a better side than Molde despite the evidence pointing emphatically in the opposite direction. Deila disagreed and was very critical of his team's performances against Molde, but then on Thursday night he seemed to do a U-turn when saying that Celtic "did well" in those ties.
They didn't. Some of the things being said by Deila and Collins are odds. At times, they seem blind to the reality of their situation. Deila saying that Celtic will be ready for the Champions League next season doesn't have a single fact to back it up. Collins saying that Celtic "could do without" the Fenerbahce match was peculiar. Surely it was an opportunity to start the repair work on a damaged reputation?
This has been Celtic's worst-ever performance in the group stages of European competition. The message from on high is that the management team are under no pressure. Maybe that's reflective of their wider European malaise. Shouldn't they be?