THERE are always positives, if you are willing to look for them. Take Celtic’s visit to Tallinn during the week, where a largely shadow eleven cantered to a 7-0 aggregate win over Estonian champions Nomme Kalju in Champions League qualifying.

Now, if you were cynical, you could argue that it was the biggest waste of time since Boris Johnson flounced into Scotland on a charm offensive. Or since Boris Johnson, for that matter.

Sure, Celtic manager Neil Lennon and everyone associated with the club will argue that they could do well without these early season trips across the continent for what, in many cases, amount to nothing more than glorified pre-season friendlies.

And yes, with 60-odd games stretching out ahead of Celtic this season, the likes of Scott Brown would probably be better served having his feet up on a sun lounger at this time of year rather than be haring around midfield after an opponent a little over half his age. But hey, for some others, the lucky few, this is a golden period.

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Having just returned from the Estonian capital, let me tell you, it’s a beautiful place. But other than broadening the travel horizons of chancers like myself, it was difficult to ascertain just what the point of the whole sham was, and why Celtic should be forced to jump through such facile but nonetheless energy-sapping hoops against opponents who are several levels below them. And their second string, for that matter.

The 14,405-seater A. Le Coq Arena was less than half full for the game, the atmosphere was akin to a midweek Hamilton v Ross County match in January, and the level of opponent was probably around the level of last season’s Falkirk side.

That’s not to say that Nomme Kalju don’t deserve to be in the second-round stage of Champions League qualifying as champions of their country, but rather that is probably the place where they do belong. While Celtic clearly do not. They can aspire for more, of course, as Celtic can too, but it seems bizarre that both of these sides start the competition at the same stage.

Having annihilated Kalju by five goals to nil in Glasgow last week, the trip to Tallinn was a chance to give ‘competitive’ debuts to the likes of Christopher Jullien and Marian Shved, sure, but it was also an exercise in avoiding any unnecessary injuries. What a cruel twist of fate it would have been if Leigh Griffiths, having fought back over many months to a stage where he looks primed and ready - both physically and mentally - once more for top level football, had picked up a serious injury as feared in the first half in Tallinn when he was booted in his calf.

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Unfortunately, the closed shop created by the UEFA co-efficient system means that this is now the reality for the Scottish champions, whoever they may be in the future. The qualification process for a competition that now goes under something of a nom de plume in calling itself a league of champions means the best Scottish sides are now caught in a vicious cycle, where the glass ceiling that limits what they can achieve is strengthening downwards, baulking under the weight of cash needed to improve and compete with the best that is stashed on the other side.

Of course, things will get a lot tougher for Celtic from here on in, not that it could have been any easier, and it is perfectly feasible to suggest that Romanian champions CFR Cluj could very well be their match.

They have, after all, participated in the group stages of the Champions League on three occasions themselves. But that is rather the point. For me, if Celtic were asked to start at this stage of the competition, it would not only be far fairer, but a truer reflection on their level.

It would also give them a chance to have a properly structured preparation period, instead of scrambling about week-to-week once they find out who their next opponent is.

Even more ludicrous than Celtic’s plight is the fact that Ajax, not only Dutch champions but semi-finalists in last year’s Champions League, now enter the competition. How can it be that a side who were seconds from reaching the final itself are forced to play two qualifying rounds just to get into the tournament proper three months down the line?

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It’s ridiculous, but to quote a famous ditty, the reason talks, but it don’t sing and dance and it don’t walk. It does however threaten to not only freeze out UEFA’s seemingly undesirable lot from the smaller nations, but subsequently threatens to kill the buzz around the competition last season stone dead in favour of the staid monotony of the ‘big club’ monopoly we endured in the years prior.

The knock-on effect of all of this is that clubs from the major nations have stashed the lion’s share of the cash, while the champions from the smaller leagues have been conditioned to think that simply getting to the group stages is where their ambitions should begin and end, save for battling it out with whatever also-ran is also in their group for the consolation prize of a Europa League place.

Alas, that and the relative scraps they have managed to pilfer from the table of the mega-rich, barring an Ajax-type miracle run, is about the best a club like Celtic can now hope for.

The only solution is for our clubs to defy those odds, despite the cards being stacked against them, and collectively try to improve out lot by bumping up the co-efficient. Difficult to do when you have a 10-day break between the end of one season and the start of pre-season training.

Still, for fans and for papers, the lack of any real hiatus means almost year-round football to enjoy.

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See, there are always positives, if you are willing to look for them.


IF you think you get angry at referees now, just wait until they enforce the new handball rules. It's hard not to feel for the embattled men in the middle though, as they don't write the rules.

Essentially, if the ball hits an attacking player's hand or arm in the build-up to a goal they will be penalised regardless of intent, while defenders will now be judged if the ball strikes their hand outwith their 'natural silhouette', whatever that is.

It seems to break down to whether or not a defender's arms are down by their sides, but when you are sliding to block a shot, there's nothing natural about having them there.

Chaos awaits.