WHAT a night that was for Scottish football.

Celtic's dramatic win in Rome confirmed Neil Lennon's side's place in the knockout stages of the Europa League thanks to Olivier Ntcham's last-gasp intervention, while the superb Alfredo Morelos and Steven Davis made sure it was a night to remember by getting the goals as Rangers brushed aside Portuguese runners-up Porto in a 2-0 win at Ibrox.

Celtic have booked their place in the last 32 of the Europa League, Rangers are within touching distance and the Scottish coefficient is in its healthiest state in years. As it stands, we're inching ever-closer to reaching that all-important 15th place and gaining another Champions League slot - and an extra Europa League berth - that comes with it. The mood in Scotland, it's fair to say, is positively giddy at the prospect.


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With Celtic and Rangers both excelling in Europe's second tier, Scottish football is the main beneficiary. For years, we have been European football's also-rans. Celtic, to their credit, have done well in recent seasons to reach the group stages of the Champions League on a few occasions but in truth have rarely gave a good account of themselves once qualification was secured.

The Scottish champions have been on the receiving end of hammerings by their illustrious opponents on more than one occasion - the defeats to Barcelona and Paris Saint Germain come to mind - but in the Europa League, it is Celtic who have been dishing out commanding victories.

This season and the last, Rangers have been pulling their weight too and this can only be to the wider benefit of Scottish football. Yes, the Europa League might not have the glitz and glamour of the Champions League but Europe's secondary club competition is a glorious throwback to the way continental football used to be.

Let's not beat around the bush: the Champions League is a closed shop with only a handful of genuine contenders each season. There is no question that if you want to see the game's best players and managers going toe-to-toe then the jewel in UEFA's crown is the place to be. But for nations outside of the 'Big Five' leagues, success is simply unthinkable.

But for teams from less-monied nations, the Europa League represents an authentic opportunity for European silverware. Teams from countries like Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Austria have a chance of going deep into the competition. Lesser-fancied sides from the top leagues often reach the quarter-finals and the semis. And for Scottish clubs, it is a tournament that can provide memorable European runs that have bona fide chance of ending in silverware.


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The big boys dominate the Champions League and it is this, in my opinion, that has led to a relatively stale format. There are memorable matches and thrilling comebacks but the tournament ultimately suffers from a lack of variety in its final stages.

It didn't used to be this way. Before football was drowned in petro-billions, teams from all across Europe had a chance of winning the European Cup. Teams like Red Star Belgrade, Steaua Bucharest and PSV Eindhoven have all lifted the famous trophy and it is nigh-on impossible to conceive a similar feat being repeated now. These days, the knockout stages are dominated by the same few teams from the same few leagues.

In the last 32 of last season's Europa League, no fewer than 16 different nations were represented. This is what continental football was meant to be; a truly open tournament where clubs from the likes of Sweden, Belarus and Greece have a genuine opportunity of reaching the knockout stages. While the Champions League has drifted away from this over the last decade or so, the Europa League has become the last refuge for - as I see it, anyway - proper, European football.

Say Celtic hadn't been knocked out by Cluj in the qualifiers. Say they managed to negotiate their way past Slavia Prague in the play-offs. The Parkhead club would have ended up in a group alongside Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan. The club would have boosted its bank balance, but at what cost? In such a group, even nicking third place would have been a tall order. Wouldn't Celtic fans prefer to have nights like they had in Rome, where victory is a genuine prospect, as opposed to praying for a draw against some of Europe's best teams?


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What Celtic supporter doesn't fondly remember the road to Seville in 2003? What Rangers fan doesn't look back on the 2008 UEFA Cup run with nostalgia? It might be an unpalatable truth for supporters of these clubs, but perhaps the Europa League is simply their level. This shouldn't stop the clubs aspiring to reach the Champions League, of course, but their is absolutely no shame whatsoever in enjoying their place in the second tier.

So here's to the Europa League. It might lack the prestige of its older brother but for teams outside of the 'Big Five' leagues it represents a glorious throwback to what European football was meant to be. The Champions League can keep its Barcelonas, its Real Madrids and its Bayern Munichs. The Europa League is where it's at: long may it continue.