The downside to building a winning team of new and exciting players is that bigger clubs will inevitably take notice.
It happened to Monaco after they reached the 2016-17 Champions League semi-finals, losing to Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy and Tiemoue Bakayoko. It happened to Ajax after they emulated that feat in 2018-19 and then Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and Kasper Dolberg moved on.
Celtic didn’t match any of those achievements last year, but on a less glamorous level, their renaissance under Ange Postecoglou has attracted more attention from some of their star players, including Atletico Madrid’s interest in Josip Juranovic.
Even in an injury-hit debut season in which he played just 35 games out of a possible 52 for Celtic, right-back Juranovic stood out for his technical ability, aggressiveness and defensive solidity. He’s the archetype of the Postecoglou full-back – comfortable enough to lap and cross his winger as well as turn around to help overload central areas and become a playmaker. He is one of the best and most important players of this team because of his skills, his suitability for Postecoglou’s system and his leadership on the pitch.
Anthony Ralston contributed a lot as Celtic’s other right-back last season and is expected to contribute a lot more this season. He played more minutes (3,862) than the Croatian (2,787). But Juranovic is technically and tactically of a different caliber than Ralston, hence Atletico’s interest. However you slice it, losing Juranovic would be a huge loss, especially when Postecoglou is trying to build a squad fit for Champions League football.
However, Celtic are in a strong position. Juranovic still has four years of contract, so there is no immediate fear that he will fall short of his value. Automatic qualification for the Champions League brings around £40m in revenue once variables such as broadcast earnings and matchday earnings are factored into the base prize money.
Since Celtic last failed to qualify for the Champions League in 2018/19, they have had to make at least one high-profile sale every summer save for 2020 when they understandably opted to keep their key assets in their ill-fated 10-in campaign a row. Revenue from the sales of Moussa Dembele (Lyon) and Kieran Tierney (Arsenal) was key for Celtic to post profits in their 2018 and 2019 accounts respectively, while fees from Odsonne Edouard (Crystal Palace) and Kristoffer Ajer (Brentford) helped – to stabilize the club financially in the wake of COVID-19 in 2021.
Qualifying for the Champions League compensates for the need to sell this summer and their February interim report showed they already had a whopping £25.6million in cash in the bank before European football was secured. A source close to the club’s hierarchy believes Celtic would need ‘dumb money’ to support a sale, while Atletico themselves need to raise money through player sales before they can start hiring players.
There will also be factors in Juranovic’s own thought process. As one of the biggest clubs in Europe, Atlético is an attractive target for most players and when such an illustrious team turns heads they can hardly be blamed. But he is believed to be happy at Celtic at the moment.
It’s also a World Cup year. With Juranovic starting 12 of Croatia’s last 15 games – and two of those missing through injury – he will be safe in Qatar in November provided he maintains his club form. If he moves to Atletico or a similar competition for places, he may not be guaranteed the playing time needed to cement his place in Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic’s line-up.
However, trading in quality players, even Champions League money, is what Celtic’s model of long-term sustainability is based on.
The cold reality is if Atletico or any other interested club were to offer £15m-20m this summer for a player who turns 27 in August who Celtic paid £2.5m for 10 months ago, the sale would be the deal an excellent deal for this level of earnings – even if his departure would anger fans and possibly his manager.
If “dumb money” was turned down this summer, there’s no certainty it’ll be offered again next year. Should Juranovic have a disappointing season or suffer a serious injury, his value would go down. Weighing the pros and cons of selling when a player’s stocks are high or keeping him on the court for success is a tricky one.
Knowing the right time to sell has been one of the problems Celtic have faced in recent years. They turned down a £13.5million offer for Olivier Ntcham from Porto in 2018, then the French midfielder’s Celtic career faltered and finally the player and club mutually terminated his contract last summer. Dedryck Boyata, with one year left on contract, was the subject of a £9million offer from Fulham after an impressive 2018 World Cup with Belgium, but Celtic turned it down and joined Hertha Berlin for nothing the following year.
Two years ago, both Ajer and Edouard received interest from German and Italian clubs but Celtic fended them off with prohibitively expensive price tags, including £40m plus for Edouard. It helped save their key assets from an ill-fated 2020-21 title challenge, but it meant both Ajer and Edouard’s contracts had just a year left and their value subsequently plummeted. Edouard eventually joined Crystal Palace for £14million on deadline day last summer and Ajer joined Brentford for £13.5million – well below Celtic’s internal valuations.
A key factor behind Celtic’s reluctance to sell on these occasions, other than focusing on 10 in a row, has been a concern that they may not be able to adequately replace these key players within this transfer window.
If an offer is made for Juranovic too tempting to resist, his replacement would be the biggest test yet for Celtic’s recruiting director Mark Lawwell and scouting chief Jay Lefevre. Lefevre’s analytically-oriented scouting led to the £1.5million coup signing of Matt O’Riley from MK Dons in January, while Lawwell’s knowledge of the South American market prompted the move for Argentina left-back Alexandro Bernabei last week.
They will have contingency plans drawn up for possible Juranovic substitutes just in case. This is common practice for all clubs Celtic’s size. There is also more confidence in their ability to find someone of similar standard and suitability for the system than perhaps there has been with previous recruitment teams.
But wouldn’t it be such a declaration of intent by the club to step on the gas? That would really signal the ambition to create something special under Postecoglou.
(Top Photo: Alan Harvey/SNS Group via Getty Images)