Celtic's Champions League tie against Juventus tonight will be savoured by many as if it was a relic of a bygone age. It's a classic David vs. Goliath battle, the sort that rarely occurs in these times of group stages and seeding, and despite the increasing inequality between leagues around Europe, we'll get the chance to see a true underdog take on a giant with a genuine chance of victory. For all the clichés surrounding these type of games, however, it should be noted that this is not a happy coincidence or an unexpected surprise for the Hoops. It is exactly what they planned to do. They are not on an adventure - they are on a suicide mission.
Their January transfer activity showed it - repeatedly rejecting Norwich's bids for Gary Hooper, fees which they will struggle to command in summer, showed how determined they were to keep together their current team for another six months. Like many other teams in smaller leagues in Europe, Porto being the most successful and efficient example, Celtic have adapted to a lack of money and being outspent by more illustrious neighbours by adopting a more sensible transfer strategy. They have even less money than the likes of Porto, Ajax, or Shakhtar, but they have adopted the same strategy as those three and it results in the same sort of team being produced.
It's a simple plan, and it effectively involves making use of their dominance of the domestic stage to allow them to take bigger gambles on players that clubs, say, in mid-table in England or Spain who could be sucked into a relegation battle, cannot afford to make. Not in a way that makes it a financial risk, but being able to rely on signings like Victor Wanyama and Emilio Izaguirre, on the basis that if they fail, their club is strong enough to compete domestically while having a hole or two in their side.
Some of these moves for Celtic have not been successful, of course, but overall the policy has yielded some excellent players - Biram Kayal, Wanyama, Izaguirre could all have been purchased by Premier League clubs, but Celtic were in a position to speculate and have now accumulated. They have been backed up by some sensible investment of players from lesser clubs in England who had to be sold, and were not picked up by bigger clubs for similar reasons. Combined with the traditional creaming off of domestic talent, bargain-basement buys, and veterans, they can create a fine balance and turn profits at the same time.
The problem with this plan is that sooner or later you come to the end of your cycle. Gary Hooper is almost certain to leave Celtic in the summer, and the same is likely of Victor Wanyama and possibly Emilio Izaguirre. All will command far greater fees than they moved to Celtic park for, so the long-term effectiveness of the plan is obvious, but they will also all need to be replaced, with another group of unknown gambles who may not turn out to be so effective.
That process of disintegration could've began in January, but to their credit, Celtic have held on. There is real belief around the club that they can pull off an incredible victory against Juventus, due to a combination of their earlier results against Barcelona, their formidable home record, and some good old-fashioned romanticism of their 1967 European title being clinched against Internazionale.
Few people are predicting a massacre is on the cards, although even less are heralding this as a new dawn for Scottish football. In a wider sense, Celtic are on a ship that is sinking further into irrelevance, but it shouldn't be forgotten that all the TV deals, league restructuring and transfer policies do not exist as intrinsically good - they justify themselves by producing spectacles like tonight. The Hoops may only be raging against the dying of the light, but they could be about to give a new dose of hope and optimism to all of Europe's smaller champions once again.