A CELTIC manager can really only be measured by his team’s fate during Champions League qualification in this era when financial muscle makes the club Scotland’s only big man. Sizing up Ronny Deila in such a context, he is falling desperately short. The Norwegian may talk often, and with great conviction, of Celtic’s progress across his 14 months in charge. Yet, when it comes to the progress that matters most, evidence is absent.
The loss of the Champions League play-off in Malmo last night made Deila the first Celtic manager to fail to lead the club to football’s promised land in back-to-back seasons. Moreover, he was the first man in his position to be afforded qualifying paths for these initial tilts that did not pit Celtic against any opponents richer or from higher-ranked nations.
Frankly, the Europa League is Celtic’s level in continental competition. Question is whether it is Deila’s level too
Deila may ultimately appear cursed when taking account of the dreadful decision by referee Milorad Mazic to deprive the Scottish champions a first-half equaliser. The Serbian and his assistants called so much wrong in chalking off a Nir Bitton strike from a 41st-minute corner there is a temptation to conclude that it wasn’t meant to be for the Norwegian. A handball from Malmo defender Kari Arnasson in the lead-up to Bitton pouncing should have ensured Celtic a crucial goal and a man advantage.
Yet, while sympathy over that tie-changing howler should not be strained, the fact remains that Deila’s team were weak and worthy of elimination despite being ranged against a side whose most expensive signing was £380,000 buy from Brugge, Enoch Kofi Adu. The Ghanaian midfielder was one of only three players that featured for Malmo in the group stages of the Champions League last year. Swedish manager Age Hareide has effectively rebuilt his team and, in doing so, endured no pause in delivering them to the top table of European football.
In contrast, after losing on the pitch to both Legia Warsaw and Maribor in his early weeks, essentially Deila has fared no better with his team, a unit he had so much faith in, after working with the key components of the side for more than a year.
Events in Sweden last night will cast a long shadow over Deila’s tenure. Celtic do not operate with a £20m football budget to win the Scottish Premiership. The outlay is supposed to provide them with a telling advantage when it comes to being paired with more modestly resourced teams in the Champions League qualifiers.
Celtic could not prevail against a Malmo side that is in essence a souped-up Aberdeen. With two goals in the away first leg, and a gutsy performance brimming with industry and application last night, one of the main architects of their demise was Jo Inge Berget, a player Celtic discarded after a handful of games.
Deila, unquestionably, will be given the opportunity to make it third time lucky in next season’s Champions League qualifiers. Before that, though, he needs to show that Celtic can be competitive in the Europa League they have now dropped into. Frankly, that is their level in continental competition. Questions are entitled to be asked about whether it is Deila’s level too.
It appears inevitable that Celtic will now cash in on Virgil van Dijk as they seek to ensure that they remain profitable without the £20m-earning Champions League group stages. Little of the £10m they bank from selling the Dutch centre-back – most likely to Southampton – will be reinvested in his replacement.
One of the attractions of Deila for Celtic’s powerbrokers was his reputation as spotter and polisher of raw talent; a man whose holistic approach had a knack of improving players and, with that, ensuring he developed the teams under his charge.
Which brings us full circle. Deila, right now, is nowhere near providing the club with the standing it enjoyed under his predecessor Neil Lennon. The Irishman twice took Celtic into the Champions League group stages. On each of these occasions, the biggest- name opponent that they knocked aside to get there were the Swedish champions.
Indeed, the fact that Celtic went down 2-0 in the Swedbank Stadium last night made for the Parkhead side’s first loss to a Swedish side in a competitive encounter. There are all too many firsts as his team keep failing to last in the Champions League for Deila.