ALL too much will be poured into Celtic’s confrontation at home to Molde on Thursday. Whatever impassioned addresses he may offer up, Ronny Deila’s credibility as manager of the Glasgow club goes on the line in the Europa League tie.
Yes, his standing should not pivot on one game, as he would petition. However, the dismal display in Norway 11 days ago that has left Celtic propping up Group A with two points, following on from the dismal display in Sweden two months ago that allowed Malmo to qualify for the Champions League at Celtic’s expense, has opened up the possibility of Deila being drowned in disgruntlement this week.
In fairness to the Norwegian, he does not shy away from the nature of the assignment in four days. “It is a must-win game,” he said. “That is how I will look at it. That we must win to get through. Maybe it won’t be, but I want to think of it that way. We have not lost at home for a long, long time and that is a positive thing. We want to keep those good stats.”
He needs the victory to keep good relations with a support now harbouring serious doubts about Deila’s capacity for delivering respectability for the club in the continental domain. Yet, with group rivals Fenerbahce on four points and Ajax also on two points, Celtic are simply one of three supposed bigger hitters that have been shown up by the modest Norwegian club.
On any given day, Deila says, Celtic should beat Molde. But on three given matchdays in this campaign, a team struggling even to qualify for Europe this year domestically with one month remaining of their summer league have excelled in Group A. Deila recognises that demands respect.
“Individually, we are better. As a team, they have played together for many years and they know what they are doing. They are a good football team. Individually, there are not many players from Molde who will come into the first 11 here. They play with each other well and that’s the positive in Norwegian football. With their systems, they are thinking ‘I know I’m not the greatest player but I know I have good skills and I will do everything to bring that to the team and my team-mates will get better’. We talk about names, we talk about teams but it is not about that. It is about how good is the team.
“Molde have shown so far they are the best in the group. They have seven points, they have played all the others and nobody has beaten them. So it is going to be a tough game on Thursday but I know we have the quality to beat them.
“We didn’t play at the level we can [in Norway] and if we do that we can beat anybody. We have shown that in Celtic Park. The last year we have won almost every game. We drew against Inter and Fenerbahce but in both games we gave away goals.
“The goals against Inter [in the 3-3] draw were way too easy and it was the same with Fenerbahce [in getting pegged back from two-up]. We have to get the defence right. We know in Europe you can’t do easy mistake or then you get punished.”
Getting the defence right for Deila in Europe has appeared a puzzle to tax the greatest analytical minds. Yet, there is reason to suspect that Jozo Simunovic, who did not feature in Molde, might be part of the solution. Even if the 21-year-old wasn’t a nailed-down starter for Dinamo Zagreb, having cost £4.5m he should be. That’s an outlay that made him Celtic’s most expensive purchase for 14 years.
His recent appearances – following a period out with injury shortly after his September arrival – have suggested that he is a natural heir to the departed Virgil van Dijk, sold to Southampton for £13m in August. Simunovic has looked a commanding, powerful, welding central defender blessed with good decision-making and ball-playing abilities. As such, already the youngster looks as if he could be a prized asset for export to England in the making.
“I’m sure he can get to that level [of Van Dijk],” Deila said. “Nothing comes by itself, though, and what Virgil achieved was tough. He worked hard for it. Jozo came to Scotland because he wants to go down that route of developing into a top, international player. So far, outside of injury, he has been working very well.
“He is a big talent but, like Virgil van Dijk and everyone else, he needs time but we will give him the experience he lacks and the training and coaching that he needs to get up to that level.
“His potential is huge. He was up against powerful opponents against Hearts in Juanma and Osman Sow [in the midweek League Cup win at Tynecastle] but he needs that, needs those type of games. It’s the only way to learn. But he has awareness on the pitch and also leadership – you can see that he controls the line [for the back four].
“He’s comfortable on the ball and he is quick and mobile. Jozo is also powerful and he jumps high but he needs the experience of working with different tactical approaches as well.
“We need central defenders who can use the ball as well as Virgil did. He was unbelievable at stepping forward and Jozo is doing that as well. He needs to build relationships [with the other defenders] but he is a talented footballer.”
Come Thursday, Celtic need to demonstrate defensive talents that have all-too-regularly deserted them in Europe under Deila.