RONNY Deila can sense the hand of history preparing to rest on his shoulder. The next eight days will go a long way to confirming whether Celtic are serious about their treble ambitions.
Indeed, the dream could unravel as early as tomorrow afternoon, when Celtic travel to play Dundee United in a Scottish Cup quarter-final tie at Tannadice Park. Defeat would ruin the chance for Deila to join a select and distinguished club of Celtic managers who have won the treble. To date, only Jock Stein and Martin O’Neill have completed the domestic clean sweep.
Wednesday’s 1-0 defeat to St Johnstone is a timely reminder that not everything necessarily goes to plan. However, Deila yesterday cautioned his players against fear.
While much might be at stake tomorrow and also in next week’s League Cup final against the same opponents, he cannot accept pressure being used as an excuse for a diminished level of performance. Players should relish the thought of having so much to play for. Deila stressed that they should be energised by the prospect of writing themselves into the history books.
“There is nothing to fear,” he said. “These are positive things. It’s not as if we are talking relegation. That’s a hard pressure. We have everything to win and we are really looking forward to it.
“From the first day I came into this room, you could feel the demands. So there is nothing new.”
Deila is not reading too much into United’s recent slump. Although they defeated the Parkhead side at Tannadice in December, Jackie McNamara’s side have since lost two of their most influential players – to Celtic. There is some consolation in knowing that Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong are cup-tied and so are not available for tomorrow’s clash or next weekend’s date at Hampden Park.
While United are frustrated at not being able to call on their services, at least Celtic can’t either, although Deila says he is not concerned by that – he is content to be able to reward those players who contributed to getting Celtic so far in both cup competitions.
It probably won’t make McNamara feel any better to know he has Deila’s sympathy at having his plans disrupted by Celtic’s swoop. Nevertheless, the Norwegian offered some anyway. Deila also conceded the controversial loss of Mackay-Steven and Armstrong could make United doubly determined to scupper Celtic’s ambitions. They also play the Parkhead side in a league clash later this month.
“I know how he [McNamara] feels,” said Delia, whose former club Stromsgodset were often cherry-picked by other clubs. “It’s especially tough when you lose them in the middle of the season as you don’t have time to get others in or have the pre-season period to get them to understand the systems,” he added. “That’s always the hard part.
“But I think Dundee United is a very good example of how to develop young players and how to play good football. I’ve watched them many times and they look a lot like what we want to do. They are a good team and a good club. They will have motivation in these games – but then we will too.”
“Dundee United have done a very good job this year,” he continued. “They have been a good team and they are going to be a tough opponent. We have to be up for the game. All three games against them are going to be really tough.”
The Celtic manager was in no mood to interpret the surprise defeat to St Johnstone as a helpful wake-up call in the title race with Aberdeen. “You don’t see it that way,” he said. “We wouldn’t have won anything but it was a chance for us to get nine points ahead. So we are disappointed that we didn’t get the win but we have to give credit to St Johnstone. They defended well. But I also feel I have to see a little bit behind the result.”
By this, Deila meant that three out of four of Celtic’s defeats in the league this season have come following tricky European encounters and during heavier schedules than normal. But just as he won’t accept the pressure of knowing the treble is within grasp as an excuse for a below-par performance, neither does he believe tiredness should affect his team tomorrow.
“I know they are very hungry to bounce back on Sunday,” he said. “There is four days [between games] and that is an important thing. It is an extra day and also it is not a 12pm kick-off, but 3.30pm. So I am glad we play on Sunday. We are going to bounce back on Sunday – I am confident of that.”
Deila has still to make a decision over full-back Emilio Izaguirre, who missed the defeat to St Johnstone with a hand injury sustained in the defeat to Internazionale at the San Siro.
“Emilio doesn’t need an operation but it might be a bit of a risk to play him,” said the manager.
But Kris Commons and John Guidetti could return as Celtic seek to maintain their treble hopes against a club who have every reason to wish to be as obstructive as possible.
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