As the last manager to win the Scottish domestic treble and also the first to lead a Scottish club into the last 16 of the Champions League, Alex McLeish is as well placed as anyone to assess the conundrum facing Ronny Deila as he seeks credibility as a successful Celtic boss.
Wednesday night’s 2-1 victory over Hearts at Tynecastle in the quarter-finals of the League Cup kept alive Deila’s ambition of securing a clean sweep of domestic honours this season.
I’m not trying to put pressure on him… people expect him to win every trophyMcleish on Ronny Deila
But it is on the European stage where the Norwegian will ultimately be judged. On the back of two failed attempts to reach the Champions League group stage so far, Deila is currently at the halfway point of a Europa League campaign in which he was widely criticised for last week’s 3-1 defeat by Molde in his homeland.
It makes next Thursday’s return fixture at Celtic Park a crucial one for Deila and, in McLeish’s view, far more significant than any of the domestic challenges he faces.
The former Rangers manager, who eclipsed Martin O’Neill’s powerful Uefa Cup finalists to land the treble in 2003, believes Celtic have under-performed in being unable to achieve the feat while the Ibrox club have been out of the top flight in recent years.
“When Rangers and Celtic were going head-to-head in the way they were in that period when I was involved, it was extremely difficult to win a treble because the teams were so evenly matched,” said McLeish. “In theory, it should be easier for the current Celtic team to win a treble, but for one reason or another they haven’t been able to do it. It should be within Celtic’s grasp.
“They are by far the biggest spenders in the league, they have by far the strongest squad and if they have injuries they have people who can come in and cover. The signing of big Carlton Cole proves that. He will cause some damage in Scotland.
“Of course Ronny Delia wants to win every competition and people expect him to win every trophy.
“When Celtic and Rangers were in the league together, in my day, winning the treble would have compensated if things hadn’t gone to plan in Europe.
“But maybe now what is much more important to Celtic is Europe. They should be winning the three trophies domestically but I understand it’s easier said than done.
“Even if you win domestically just now it might not be enough, Europe is the big expectation and winning domestically is a bit taken for granted.
“It’s like down south if Arsene Wenger wins the League Cup, most Arsenal fans wouldn’t be happy with that. That wouldn’t be success in their eyes.
“In Scotland, domestic success is taken as read for Celtic at the moment. That’s why everyone with Celtic in their hearts, and for Scottish football, needs Celtic to succeed in Europe and that’s the pressure that’s on them.
“I’m not going to speculate on Ronny’s future. But he has got to beat teams like Malmö and Molde in Europe.
“At Celtic, your spending power is probably bigger than theirs. So is it then an indictment on the Scottish league that the Swedish league is better? That it is more competitive for Malmö there? Is it more competitive in Norway for Molde?
“These are the hurdles Celtic have to get over, starting in the next home game. I think Ronny has to be beating these teams.
“I’m not trying to put pressure on him. I just know, having been there as a manager, that would be the same expectation for me. I’m sure Ronny would appreciate that coming from someone else who has been through that kind of situation. I know the expectation levels.”
Ironically for McLeish, his greatest European achievement with Rangers was not enough to prevent the end of his tenure at the club. He guided a struggling side to the last 16 of the Champions League in 2006, where they lost on away goals to Villarreal, but was replaced as manager by Paul le Guen at the end of that season.
“Looking back, winning a treble is more tangible,” said McLeish. “It’s actually about holding trophies, whereas the last 16 of the Champions League is more a money thing for the club.
“It’s also more prestigious for the players and an achievement for that reason. To be honest, Porto should have qualified from that group along with Inter Milan when we did it in 2006.
“We were really strapped and had bags of players missing when we went over to face Porto. There was no way we should have gone through. But wee Ross McCormack came up trumps with a late goal and we got that draw we needed.
“So it was a phenomenal achievement in itself to then secure a point against Inter in our last game to qualify.”
Celtic must ensure they defend the Scottish Premiership title in order to give Deila another crack at Champions League glory next season and they could take a major step towards that goal against nearest rivals Aberdeen in Glasgow tomorrow.
A home win would put Celtic seven points clear of the Dons and McLeish feels the club he starred for as a player face a daunting task. “Celtic have a bit of momentum again in the league, if not in Europe,” he said. “They’ve still got a chance in Europe with the games they’ve got at home, but certainly domestically they are going well.
“I think it will be hard for the Dons this weekend. They’ll need to summon every ounce of mental strength they can.
“They’ve beaten Celtic already this season at home, so the evidence is there. But they’re on a pretty bad run now after the most phenomenal run at the start of the season which had them four points clear at one stage. To go to Celtic Park and win you need to really believe. I’m sure Derek McInnes will have them going there with that kind of attitude.”