IN THE wake of the Champions League play-off exit to Maribor, Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell admitted his new manager Ronny Deila had been caught up in a “sh*tstorm” through requiring to rebuild while attempting to construct a way in to Europe’s blue riband tournament.
Were the Norwegian effectively to preside over a third competition knock-out of his short tenure when the club host Hearts in the League Cup on Wednesday, it fair to say the excrement would blow up again.
There was some sort of recognition of this fact from the Norwegian the other day. Even if he wasn’t effusive on whether beating Hearts was more important than beating Motherwell in the league at Celtic Park this afternoon. He dutifully rattled out the soundbites about “hating” to lose, the importance of the “triple” and the desire to “win every game”, but only after he acknowledged that the question was a “tough” one.
What has proved tough for Celtic is getting their hands on the League Cup. Indeed, if there was one blemish on the record of Neil Lennon, it was his record in domestic cup competitions. During his four-and-a-bit years in charge, Celtic never triumphed in the League Cup, with two Scottish Cup victories his only wins in nine domestic cup outings. As it stands, Deila can boast only one win in Celtic’s past five matches, though the creditable 2-2 draw in the club’s Europa League opener away to Salzburg on Thursday bought him some breathing space. He needs to purchase a little more by ensuring that Celtic are in the hat for the League Cup quarter-finals come Wednesday evening. Especially with Hearts now being a Championship side following their relegation from the top flight last season.
Yet, Deila’s desire to make full use of his personnel and ensure there are enough rest periods for players as Europa League nights vie with Premiership duties and the League Cup on the calendar across this month means he will not discount the possibility of turning to fringe performers in midweek. A year ago that played a part in Lennon’s side losing at home to Morton in the League Cup, extinguishing any hope of a treble hideously early.
“There are so many matches now, before the international break [in a fortnight]. You have to see the whole picture and manage the squad as well as possible,” Deila said. “But we have a lot of strong players so we are going to have a strong team in every game. I think I have a good core of the group, I know which players I have for each position. It is more about getting everybody fit now and getting them available.
“I think the cups are important, they are fun, interesting games, to get to cup finals is unbelievable. The goal is to win the triple so of course we are going to take the cup games seriously.
“It is very important and it is only one game so you can’t make any mistakes or you are gone. We have a plan and we will see what we do.”
Deila must plan for his Celtic team to proceed in games better than they have so far under his stewardship. A pattern is developing whereby they are struggling to capitalise on good starts. Away to Legia Warsaw, Maribor and Salzburg they were unable to hold on to early leads. Clean sheets are also proving difficult to come by. It is nine games since Celtic last prevented their opponents from scoring.
“We are starting well but dropping in the middle of the first half. I think that has something to do with a lot of changes, because we have some players out with injury and a lot of new players coming in,” he said. “We need to be more clinical when we get in the lead, especially away. That way we can keep it and make the opponent more impatient. After a while they will take risks.
“It is a very important task to get some clean sheets. We have changed the team a lot but it is about relationships. Last year we had a long spell with good defending when the same back four was playing almost all the time. I think that is important, to get players in the best positions and let them play together most of the time.”
With Hearts around the corner, Deila can at least be expected to make a break with Lennon in the best possibly way. The Irishman was famously attacked by one supporter of the Tynecastle club when the sides met in Gorgie in May 2011. Only two months earlier, he was sent a viable explosive device through the post by two Rangers supporters.
The Norwegian joked that he “didn’t have a mailbox”, but was well aware of the fate that befell Lennon pitchside at Hearts ground. “I heard about [it], so I hope they can leave me alone,” he said.
Deila says he welcomes the prospect of Rangers, Hearts and Hibs returning to the top flight in the future and so meaning that three of Scotland’s five best supported teams are adding to the colour and excitement of the Premiership here, and giving Celtic a taste of the sort of hostility they need to cope with on the continent.
“It’s very important to have the highest level in the league that will make Scottish football better but right now this is the highest level and we have good teams as well. They are maybe not the biggest names, but good teams, better than those in the Championship,” he said, stating it would be “fantastic” if his team had a cup meeting with Rangers. “So it’s easy to say, but it is how you perform on the pitch that’s the most important thing. Of course, big teams to be in the top division but they have to be good enough.
“The higher level you have in the league, the better you do in Europe. That’s why I am so glad we have Europe as well because that’s the other way around also, you can take that level into Scotland, and that’s what we learn from it. If we just played Scottish league and didn’t have any Europe we wouldn’t have any experience so these matches are so important for us.”
Whether Deila admits it or not, Wednesday’s meeting with Hearts is a whole heap more important than the outcome of today’s Motherwell encounter.