Before a ball has been kicked in England or the Scottish Premier League, Celtic manager Ronny Deila looks doomed. A 6-1 aggregate loss against Legia Warsaw -- a team few fans would have remembered existed prior to the tie -- means that the Bhoys are out of the Champions League, the only stage that really matters at the moment. It's not that the upcoming season looks unpromising, it's that there are only a few ways in which it might not be effectively over already. And those ways are all either grim or completely unrealistic.
The first is that Celtic will be better off in the Europa League, a competition in which they have a better chance of progressing, but the fact they were beaten home and away by Legia would suggest that even the continent's also-rans might be too tough a task for this team. Failure to make the Champions League group stages also means that the club misses out on a huge amount of money, and in any case, even if you discount the fact that they were just battered by Legia, there are still teams that would expect to beat a coherent version of this Celtic side quite easily.
The second is that they might finally put together a domestic treble, but this is also unlikely. Despite Rangers being largely taken out of the picture, Celtic's previous manager Neil Lennon was unable to land a treble. Lennon might be far from a managerial genius, but Deila has already committed blunders that his predecessor never would have; it would be a major surprise were he to outstrip his achievements at the club.
The third way is probably the most likely, and the least palatable. This is that Celtic could be so poor that they will let someone like Aberdeen in for a title challenge and will actually have a fight for the league. Great news for Scottish football, but a total disaster for a club whose minimum acceptable standard for this season is probably "win the title without any drama at all."
So Celtic, out of their most prestigious competition in August and down a lot of money on top of that, are in quite a lot of trouble. Deila admitted as much in his post-match press conference, making the sort of seemingly minor but revealing PR blunder beloved of all damned managers (hello; David; hello, Tim): "We have to improve. We have to win the league" was his verdict, which will effectively be translated as "if we do not improve we will not win the league," which would be an unthinkable disaster. Anything but a good start, and sacking Deila not only looks likely, it seems like the only course of action.
If this all sounds harsh on Deila, that's because it is. Celtic, like all big clubs in small countries, have to overturn a certain number of players every year to keep things going in the right direction. It's a good strategy used by other teams in the same situation, like Porto and Ajax, and the club have managed to turn big profits on unearthed bargains, from Victor Wanyama to Gary Hooper to Ki Sung-Yeung. Eventually, the same will happen with Virgil van Dijk and Fraser Forster, perhaps even this summer.
Of course, selling is only half of the strategy. Good teams are supposed reinvest that money in getting newer players in, improving the squad, but Celtic have been increasingly forgetting to do this through a mixture of incompetence and indifference from the club's higher-ups. Among those bargains the club have picked up, they've also missed out on some staggering no-brainers in recent years. The club was in dire need of a striker before Hooper, and is now in need of one again, but Steven Fletcher and Johnny Russell were allowed to leave the country. It's also a mystery how a club in such a dominant position as Celtic could allow the likes of Ryan Gauld, Andrew Robertson and, before them, James McCarthy to leave Scotland without a fight.
Celtic will probably buy players, but the aforementioned two most obvious ones have gone, and in deciding to sell before their Champions League qualifier and buy after, they've already paid a heavy price regardless of who they go on to target now. Scottish football might not pay many bills, but Celtic are far from an impoverished club. Instead, those in charge appear to have simply closed the purse -- and that's even before the loss of income that the Legia defeat represents.
It's a tragedy, in many ways. Just as Rangers' demotion to the fourth tier might have been looked upon by some as a squandered opportunity to reinvigorate the club, the same has been true of Celtic. The opportunity to focus on bettering their team, emerge once again as a European force and enjoy themselves was there, but the Barcelona game aside, it's been a pretty miserable few years. The most obvious trend is a purposeless, gradual decline. Instead of a chance for growth in the face of diminished competition, it seems the board have decided that Rangers' relegation marked instead the time to rest on their laurels and not spend any money, secure in their position.
When Rangers went into administration, a lot of people thought it might be a disaster for Celtic. They've been proved right -- just not in the way they thought.