HE may have been forced to cancel his plans to attend COP28 in Dubai this weekend, but Pope Francis declared himself fit enough to honour his meeting in the Vatican with a Celtic delegation led by manager Brendan Rodgers on Wednesday morning in the wake of the Parkhead side’s 2-0 defeat to Lazio in Rome the evening before.

The Herald: Celtic FC delegation meets Pope Francis in the VaticanCeltic FC delegation meets Pope Francis in the Vatican (Image: Getty)

The fixtures tend to pile up for the pontiff at this time of year, what with advent kicking off today in the build up to every churchgoer’s Champions League final: Christmas Day Mass.

But boy, could Rodgers’ side have done with some divine intervention before kick-off in the Stadio Olimpico in the Italian capital, where his depleted team’s relentless huffing and puffing would have struggled even to blow down the least fortified of little pigs’ houses.

Against Serie A giants Lazio on Tuesday night, Rodgers sent out a side still missing key players such as Reo Hatate, who remains sidelined through injury, and Luis Palma and Daizen Maeda, who both missed out through suspension. Despite Celtic dominating possession in a formidable foreign venue, Lazio carved out the lion’s share of real chances, with Ciro Immobile converting two of their five shots on target inside the final 10 minutes.

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His Holiness had some words of conciliation, of course: “In sport, the most beautiful thing is graciousness, the beauty of playing together,” he declared in the Paul VI Hall in the Vatican prior to his General Audience. With respiratory issues behind his withdrawal from COP, it was a genuinely inspiring effort from the pontiff to deliver his message while clearly still labouring with shortness of breath.

"It doesn't matter if we have won or if we have not won. Everyone struggles to win, but victory is not the goal, that can be defeat. Victory is the entire process of playing together, playing as a team.

"Maintain the amateur spirit. That is the most beautiful thing about sport."

Perhaps Pope Francis was channelling compatriot Lionel Messi with these words, with the diminutive Argentine finally capping an interstellar career with a World Cup win in Qatar last winter having suffered a painful defeat to Germany after extra-time in the 2014 final. But that’s all very well when you have such a messianic talent to turn to in adversity.

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Similarly, Celtic’s Group E rivals Lazio and Atletico Madrid possess household attacking names in their ranks to call on when the going gets tough, as they demonstrated in thrilling encounters against the Parkhead side this season. In the home fixture against Lazio in October, Celtic took the lead through their own talismanic striker Kyogo Furuhashi and went in level at half-time after Matias Vecino equalised. In the latter stages of the match, Rodgers and everyone inside Celtic Park thought Palma had clinched a first home victory in the competition in a decade before a VAR review spotted an offside in the build-up. Cue Spain World Cup winner Pedro’s entry into Lazio’s front line, and the Romans were celebrating his headed winner deep into injury time.

Likewise, at home to LaLiga outfit Atletico Madrid, Celtic twice took the lead through Furuhashi and Palma, but were pegged back on both occasions by another World Cup winner, France forward Antoine Griezmann, and Spain veteran Alvaro Morata, both of whom have seen and done it all in the game.

Following a 6-0 drubbing in the return fixture in Madrid, Tuesday night’s defeat which immobilised the Scottish champions’ aim of securing European football after Christmas was sealed by a double from Immobile, the striker who led the line in Italy’s 2020 European Championships final victory against England.

The closest Celtic have come to such mercurial attacking talent in recent years has been Jota, but the Saudi Pro League’s bottomless money pit soon swallowed him up. Pope Francis may have nodded to the history of the Parkhead club, which was set up in 1888 with a goal of tackling poverty in Glasgow, but Jota’s £25m sale was no act of charity.

The Herald: Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers visits Pope FrancisCeltic manager Brendan Rodgers visits Pope Francis (Image: Getty)READ MORE: Callum McGregor not surprised Celtic struggle in Europe

The need for quality signings has been signalled by Rodgers since his return to Parkhead at the start of the summer. Clearly, the close-season signings into the club have failed to match his ambition. The Celtic manager was all smiles when he presented the Pope with a signed Celtic home shirt with “Francis” printed on the back, and perhaps it would be too much of a departure from the current development signing strategy to expect this particular Argentine veteran to don the hoops next season and perform miracles. But with club captain Callum McGregor echoing his manager’s refrain in the wake of Tuesday’s latest loss, the signals to the club’s board should be as clear as a plume of white smoke.

Perhaps January will signal the moment the club’s hierarchy, who recently boasted of £72m solvency in the bank, prise open the special cheque book which can accommodate an additional zero at the end of the “deposit” column.

"Yet, how much the world of football has changed since then,” the Pope continued. "In particular, the financial footprint of the 'beautiful game' has greatly increased, and at times can risk making football only attractive for reasons of monetary profit."

Maybe this aversion to gratuitous wealth was a factor in his giving COP a miss in the Gulf region. It would be up to his Holy Father to say whether he glazed over such misgivings when Messi was lifting the World Cup in Qatar last year. It’s amazing what winning can do.

Celtic’s final Group E match this season is against pot-one outfit Feyenoord. A dead rubber? A chance to play in the amateur spirit? Well, Rodgers has the chance to equal or better predecessor Ange Postecoglou’s record of two points garnered last season, something he will be desperate to do having failed in his stated goal of securing European football after Christmas.

“It doesn’t matter if we have won or not won.” I doubt the Northern Irishman will be reciting this line to his players in the dressing room beforehand. There’s nothing like winning against the top seeds in the section to end a six-year winless hoodoo in the competition. Oh, and before we get all dewy-eyed about it, the £2.4m prize money for a victory in the group stage this season will be quite the incentive when it comes to bolstering that war chest come January.