Progress in Euro ties raises mood of Scottish football

By Richard WilsonBBC Scotland
Aberdeen striker Adam Rooney
Aberdeen striker Adam Rooney celebrates win over FC Groningen

A bout of indifference will not do Scottish football any harm.

The Commonwealth Games, in all its vibrancy, exuberance and sheer scale, has temporarily marginalised the national sport.

That might provide some useful perspective, given its capacity for self-absorption, but even in the foothills of European competition, merit is still within reach.

Aberdeen faced a demanding task in trying to overcome FC Groningen in the second qualifying round of the Europa League, having drawn the first leg 0-0 at Pittodrie, but a 2-1 win in the Netherlands re-emphasised the sense of a club in resurgence.

St Johnstone, too, defied the odds. Their opponents FC Luzern reportedly call upon an annual budget of around £16m, but the Swiss side were despatched on penalties after the two legs were drawn 1-1.

Celtic striker Teemu Pukki
Teemu Pukki scores Celtic's final goal in the 4-0 win over FK Reykjavik that sealed a 5-0 win on aggregate in the Champions League second qualifying round

There was, then, a jarring frustration to Motherwell's failure in Iceland.

Stjarnan have been in consistent form domestically - they are unbeaten in 12 league games - but the part-time side were the beneficiaries of flaws in their opponents, and the scheduling of the ties, as they won 5-4 on aggregate.

Motherwell defended ineptly at times, with Keith Lasley conceding three penalties over the two games, but they were also ring rusty and the lapses were as much mental as physical.

Celtic were widely expected to overcome FK Reykjavik in the second qualifying round of the Champions League, which they did comfortably enough while leaving room for Ronny Deila to demand better.

There might have been an element of the new manager imposing himself when he said after the 4-0 win over the Icelandic champions at Murrayfield - to seal a 5-0 aggregate victory - that "we have to work in training and in matches so we can get the tempo even better".

Nonetheless, there is no sense of Scottish football needing to feel inferior, despite legitimate grumbles about the need to enter the competitions so early.

Stevie May
Stevie May scores a penalty kick in St Johnstone's victory over FC Luzern in the Europa League second qualifying round

Aberdeen's result, in particular, provides a surge of optimism.

The Eredivisie is not amongst the elite European leagues, suffering the same restrictions as Scottish football because television and other commercial deals cannot compete, but the level of the game is reflected in the fact that Holland finished second and third in the past two World Cups.

Groningen were coming into the games cold in competitive terms, whereas Aberdeen had already seen off Daugava Riga in the first qualifying round, but progress was not just about match sharpness.

Under Derek McInnes, the team has found the means to combine resolve with attacking dynamism. If the performances are built on organisation and players accepting that they all have defensive responsibilities to fulfil, the results come from timely attacking intent.

There is license for the likes of Johnny Hayes, Peter Pawlett and Niall McGinn to expose opponents on the counter-attack, while Adam Rooney provides incisiveness and cool-headed instincts inside the penalty area.

Rooney has scored six times this season already - more than half of the team's goals haul - and the challenge for McInnes is to carry the momentum into the domestic campaign.

It is not a sole obligation. There has been a tendency for Scottish football to dismiss European football, outwith the attempts of Celtic and, before their financial crisis, Rangers to reach the Champions League group stages.

Too often, other Scottish sides have failed to negotiate the qualifying rounds, so that recent achievements have carried an air of surprise.

St Johnstone knocked Rosenborg out last season, and now have a fine chance of going a stage further. They lost on penalties to FC Minsk in the third qualifying round 12 months ago, but face an eminently winnable tie with Spartak Trnava of Slovakia this time around.

Motherwell's Craig Reid is left distrught after his side lose out in Iceland
Motherwell's Craig Reid is left distrught after his side lose out in Iceland

Motherwell continue to confound. They have finished runners-up in the top-flight for two seasons running, but their record in Europe is patchy.

They have now failed to win any of their last 10 games in Europe, and have lost at the first time of asking on their last four European campaigns. Some of the opponents have been daunting, and most summers the squad has been affected by the downsizing of the budget, but the club's fortunes have been a persuasive case for starting the season earlier so that Scottish sides can be better prepared for the demands of European football.

All the same, this is not a time for recriminations.

Scottish football can feel invigorated by the European successes so far, and Celtic and St Johnstone can feel confident about progressing.

Aberdeen need not feel intimidated by their task, even if Real Sociedad have been strong in recent La Liga seasons and reached the Champions League group stage last year after knocking Lyon out of the qualifiers, although they only won one point.

If Scottish football is to improve, its individual clubs need to be assured and progress at this time of the season. The domestic game is not as strong as it might be, but there is no need for further introspection.

Other clubs can take inspiration from the exploits of Celtic, Aberdeen and St Johnstone - as well as the mood of cheerful engagement from the wider public that has greeted the Commonwealth Games.