Aidan Smith: Winner takes all as Celtic hopes go pop

Malmo's fans whip up a racket in the Swedbank Stadium on Tuesday. Picture: SNS
Malmo's fans whip up a racket in the Swedbank Stadium on Tuesday. Picture: SNS
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WHEN is pop music at its most terrifying? Maybe a ferocious heavy-metal band, so loud they loosen fillings and so screechy they remove the enamel from your teeth. Or Black Sabbath played backwards to reveal: “We’re all going to die next Tuesday.” Or Arthur Brown singing Fire in a flaming crown and hoping he can get to the end of the song before his head starts to melt.

Midway through the second half in Malmo’s Swedbank Stadium on Wednesday night, as another Celtic player dallied and dithered and then seemed almost relieved to be able to surrender possession to the rampant home side, it was Abba.

Yes, the band who won Eurovision, became lovers, then divorcees, then a fluffy musical and an even fluffier movie, and who are adored by women of a certain age and gay men, provided the soundtrack to a dark night which, according to Celtic manager Ronny Deila, left his players “very frightened and very scared”.

We had been told, by those who had been there on European nights before, that the Swedbank was not an intimidating place, at least not compared to football arenas in, say, Turkey. But from where I was sitting it sounded bloody loud.

Galatasaray’s ultras love the notoriety of “Welcome to hell”. The Celtic faithful swell with pride when commentators burble the standard greeting to TV audiences about their ground being special on European nights. If you miss this, don’t worry: the fans will remind you of it. But the Malmo supporters, Celtic now know, can whip up a racket. By singing their club song, by singing “Show them the way to go home” – and by singing Abba.

Underestimating the raucousness of a few chants is one thing but a bigger crime is underestimating the abilities of the opposition. As soon as Celtic had squeezed through the previous qualifying round in Azerbaijan, Deila was assuring everyone of the team’s safe passage into the Champions League proper. In Qarabag, they had already met, and overcome, their toughest opponents. The manager said this before the draw for the play-offs had even been made.

There was another guarantee from Deila before Wednesday’s second leg: Celtic would progress. This despite the slenderness of the lead, the valuable away goals achieved by a side that no one seemed to rate very highly. Yes, Celtic’s defence was vulnerable so Malmo might score again, but there was no way the Swedes’ chronic backline was going to be able to prevent the Scottish champions matching whatever their strikers achieved and very probably beating it. Everyone seemed agreed on this.

You don’t often hear managers being quite so cocksure before a game which promises to be very tight. Normal football protocol means a coach will say his players will have to be at their best to get the desired result. But Deila doesn’t stand on ceremony. He can be blunt and bullish and mostly we find this refreshing. The trouble obviously occurs when words are not matched by deeds.

You wonder how it can all have gone so wrong in the short time between Deila’s last look at his players in the build-up, encouraging his confident prediction, and the first piece of indecisiveness out on the pitch.

Some other questions: why did Celtic continue to cock up at corners after what happened in the first leg? Why did Leigh Griffiths’ most decisive contact with a ball not involve the one used in the match? Will Scott Brown re-think his game strategy given the Malmo players weren’t scared of his dead-eyed stare? Is Nir Bitton, much-praised recently, starting to believe his own publicity? How up for it was Virgil van Dijk?

All over the park the team were poor. If you were being ultra-critical you might question Craig Gordon’s authority at corners, notwithstanding his astonishing saves. But this is the juncture Deila has reached. Judge me in a year, he said, after the failure to qualify last season.

Mamma mia, with Celtic once again denied the money, money, money of the group stages, will this be his Waterloo?