IT WAS what Ronny Deila did not say this week when assessing the magnitude of the encounter at Pittodrie this lunchtime that told a story. A revealing one, indeed, as to the potentially pivotal nature of his title-defending Celtic side’s jousts with an Aberdeen team that represents the only pretenders to their Premiership crown.
It was put to the Norwegian that the four league meetings between the pair could in fact determine which of them emerges victorious in this season’s top flight. He was willing to give the concept headroom, and initially at least eschew the one-game-at-a-time managerial speak. His response might have been governed by recent history since had the outcomes been reversed in the clubs’ matches last campaign – all won by Celtic – then so too would have been the final pecking order.
“I think that’s going to be important [the four games],” he said. “Aberdeen are at a good level all the time. They take points all the time and the games against them here are going to be important as well. But there are 38 games. Last season, we talked in January if they could keep up with us but we have to wait until April to see what kind of race it is going to be. But this is a big game and if we win it, we put ourselves in the situation we want to be.”
Aberdeen, in chasing a record sixth straight win at the start of a league campaign, are where few anticipated they could be pre-Derek McInnes. Last season they put together their best form in a championship for two decades: 11 wins posted during a 13-game unbeaten run across the winter months. Deila firmly believes they can improve upon such standards.
“I think they are better,” he said. “There is good consistency and they have more experience. They are better than they were last year. They have played together a long time. They are good from crosses and scoring at set plays. They have quick wingers and attacking full-backs, so they have different things. And when they have [Adam] Rooney up front, they have someone who can put the ball into the goal.”
McInnes’ side wouldn’t dare say so publicly, but this would appear a very good time to be confronting Celtic. The Glasgow club had a clutch of players that toiled unhappily as Scotland’s Euro 2016 hopes were severely dented with the defeats in Georgia and against Germany. There is a European game looming on the horizon; Thursday night in Amsterdam bringing the start of the club’s Europa League campaign.
More pointedly, the £13 million sale of Virgil Van Dijk and the recruitment of Jozo Simunovic and Tyler Blackett means, conceivably, Deila could field a back four at Pittodrie today that fails to feature a single player that has been at the club more than a couple of months.
Pitching £4.5m capture from Dinamo Zagreb Simunovic into the side after two days’ training with his new club might be a risk. Likewise with Manchester United loanee Blackett, with Emilio Izaguirre hardly warranting instant removal at left-back. However, with Dedryck Boyata and Saidy Janko still finding their feet in central defence and left back respectively, Celtic’s backline will hardly be tried and tested. Boyata is likely to be partnered by either Charlie Mulgrew or Efe Ambrose, a new pairing that will highlight how much of a miss Van Dijk could be. At least during 21-year-old Simunovic’s assimilation period.
Deila admitted that reshaping his defence caused him “a little bit” of a problem. “But it is one player. It’s not a big thing. Virgil was a great player but we have brought players in who are very good and we have good players from beforehand who can play in central defence. So, I’m not worried about that.”
With his only other previous senior coaching position with modest Norwegian side Stromsgodset, neither is Deila anguished by the fact that Van Dijk’s departure to Southampton demonstrated Celtic can no longer hold on to their most coveted assets for more than a couple of seasons.
“I’m used to it. You have to understand what kind of club you’re coming to – and what kind of club I was at before, as well. Now, it’s about the level and it’s about money, those two things. Scotland is not the highest level. And we don’t have the highest salaries, either. So these players want to prove themselves football-wise and earn more money. That’s something you can’t stop.
“We just have to keep them as long as we can. It’s very good that we kept Virgil for another year, before he reached the stage where it was the right time to go. And also we got a lot of money back for him. I don’t think the money we got for Virgil is the biggest ever. I think we can get higher. In the future, we can do that, as long as we progress all the players we have.
“Now, we’re starting to get a reputation – if you go to Celtic, you can get better and better, then get sold to a bigger club. Blacket would never have come to Celtic if he hadn’t heard about what happened with Jason [Denayer]. So this reputation is very good for us. Of course we want to own most of the players. But Blackett is at that level we can’t buy. So sometimes it’s good to get in good signings on loan, as well.
“Players leave to go to a higher level, playing Premier League every week. So they are not bigger clubs than Celtic. Who is bigger than Celtic? You have to go to Arsenal, United maybe. But they are playing in the Premier League, you have a bigger chance to show yourself and move on to the next stage, the national team as well.
“So it’s about two things. Money, of course. And playing in a bigger league that is more competitive.”
For his own employment prospects Deila has to ensure that days like today at Pittodrie don’t lead to the Scottish Premiership becoming a whole lot more competitive.