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Real Madrid a Great Test for Celtic’s Champions League Model

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Ange Postecoglou didn’t have much time. The Australian coach was not Celtic’s first selection as manager: The Glasgow club had, as a substitute, spent weeks last summer trying to steer the Englishman Eddie Howe to take the post. By the point Postecoglou was hired in June 2021 — and served out his mandatory quarantine upon arrival in Scotland — he had little greater than a month before his first competitive game.

Time was not the one thing he was lacking. The situation at Celtic Park, because the 57-year-old Postecoglou would later admit, was faintly “chaotic.” Celtic’s team, recently beaten to the Scottish title by Rangers for the primary time in a decade, was in dire need of an overhaul, a squad so lacking in each quality and quantity that Postecoglou was reduced to drafting in youth players to pad out his early training sessions.

There was also no person to inform him when reinforcements may be coming. Celtic had appointed a recent chief executive only a few months earlier, but it surely was still looking for someone to function technical director. Postecoglou, who had never worked in Europe before, was on his own.

His response to that challenge did greater than simply restore Celtic to the top of Scottish soccer, wrenching the title back from the opposite side of Glasgow at the primary opportunity and immediately transforming Postecoglou — whose arrival had been greeted with a skepticism that bordered on suspicion — right into a wildly popular figure.

It also did greater than merely return the team, for the primary time because the fall of 2017, to the group stages of the Champions League. The club begins its campaign on Tuesday evening by welcoming Real Madrid, the reigning European champion, to the place its fans call Paradise.

As an alternative, Postecoglou’s approach laid down what amounts to a blueprint, showing how Celtic can ensure it doesn’t should endure such a chronic absence from the continent’s elite again. And it would help the handfuls of clubs caught in the identical quandary — the brightest lights within the lesser leagues, the large fish within the small ponds — thrive in European soccer’s hopelessly skewed financial ecosystem.

Postecoglou, as he sought to revive Celtic, identified two key “points of difference.” The primary was his form of play, a percussive, expansive approach best encapsulated by the slogan that became something of a mantra for the club last season: “We never stop.” It is straightforward, Postecoglou said this month, for a manager to say they intend to play attacking soccer. He prides himself on delivering it.

The second point, though, was arguably more immediately significant. One temporary sojourn in Greece apart, Postecoglou had spent his entire profession in Australia and Asia; Celtic hired him on the back of three successful years at Yokohama F. Marinos, Manchester City’s cousin club in Japan. There, Postecoglou thought, was an edge. “I could tap into some transfer markets that were a bit bit unknown,” he said.

Celtic already had a longstanding reference to Japan — the playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura spent 4 years on the club in the primary decade of the century. But, within the absence of a settled structure on the club, Postecoglou leaned in to it, making Kyogo Furuhashi, a vivid, prolific forward who had risen to prominence with Vissel Kobe, the primary high-profile signing of his reign.

Postecoglou was aware he was taking a risk. There was, as he said, loads of doubt as as to if Furuhashi would have the option to shine in Scotland.: Few fans would have known that, within the words of a scout at one other Scottish club, the “standard of the J League is higher than the usual in Scotland.” Even fewer would have had a likelihood to see Furuhashi play.

“Possibly if I hadn’t managed on that side of the world, I may need had the identical skepticism,” Postecoglou said. The dearth of time, though, meant he didn’t have much selection. He gave Furuhashi his debut before he had even trained along with his recent teammates. “He’d only had lunch with them once,” Postecoglou said.

The chance, though, paid off so well — Furuhashi would end his first season in Scotland with 12 goals in 20 league games — that by December, Postecoglou was completely happy to return. This time, he returned with three players: Reo Hatate, Yosuke Ideguchi and Daizen Maeda, a former charge from his time at Yokohama. All but Ideguchi are prone to start against Real Madrid on Tuesday.

Postecoglou has been keen to emphasize that, though all 4 players are Japanese, they mustn’t be grouped together. “They’re different people; they’re different players,” he said earlier this 12 months. “They’re all totally different. All of them have different personalities. They’ve had different careers to this point, they usually offer something different to the club.”

They’re all, though, proof that Postecoglou was correct to discover his knowledge of the Japanese market as a possible advantage.

Though there are sufficient Japanese players in Europe — primarily clustered in Germany, Belgium and Portugal — that earlier this 12 months Hajime Moriyasu, the national team coach, could name a whole squad and not using a single J League player, few European teams employ everlasting scouts in Japan.

Indeed, until relatively recently, even those that sent representatives to scour the J League for players found it was not particularly easy. This was not simply because of the price and distance of travel, but because all the league’s games tended to kick off at the identical time, meaning every week’s trip might yield the prospect to absorb just one or two matches.

Likewise, few European agencies have a footprint in Japan, disconnecting the country from the networks that may play a significant role in player recruitment. Those difficulties disincentivized European teams from looking too closely on the Japanese market. Celtic engaged only due to Postecoglou’s firsthand knowledge: “I’ve got that added advantage of knowing the market,” he said. “Once I took over I used to be definitely going to make use of that expertise.”

In doing so, he has helped to make Celtic a paradigm. Due to Postecoglou’s connections, Celtic has been capable of retool its squad for a fraction of the price it could have taken to accumulate equivalent players from Europe, enabling the club to beat at the very least a bit of the financial drawback it experiences just by virtue of calling a comparatively small country — and by extension television market — home.

It’s an approach the club has began to construct on. It has appointed Mark Lawwell, one other alumnus of Yokohama — and the City Football Group network that runs the club — to oversee its recruitment division. Even before his official appointment, Postecoglou was bringing in players not only from England’s lower leagues, the standard hunting ground for Scottish clubs, but from Russia and Argentina, Poland and Israel.

The approach also makes the Celtic Postecoglou has built an example other clubs in its station — the champions cut adrift by the gathering of power and wealth by Europe’s major leagues — can follow. Those teams don’t all the time have the time, or resources, that the continent’s true giants can match. Through the use of a bit knowledge, though, by finding something where scarcely anybody else has looked, they will level the playing field, just a bit.

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