Deila says Celtic must learn to deal with Champions League expectations after another sorry exit from Europe’s elite competition
THERE is perhaps nothing which provides a better illustration of the disparity between the Champions League and Europa League than Celtic Park.
When they missed out on European football’s top tier tournament last season, there was a painful symmetry in Celtic’s decision to close the top tier of their 60,000 capacity stadium for all three of their Europa League group stage games.
It is a scenario they must face again as the dust settles on Tuesday night’s abject elimination from the Champions League in Malmo.
Try as they must and certainly will to talk up the Europa League, it will remain a hard sell to punters regardless of who the Scottish champions find themselves grouped with in tomorrow’s draw.
The Champions League group stage has become the be-all and end-all for Celtic and their supporters in recent years, the only show guaranteed to sell out Parkhead. The onus placed on qualification has now proved too much for Ronny Deila to handle in consecutive seasons as Celtic manager.
As he reflected on the 2-0 defeat in Malmo, which sent his team out 4-3 on aggregate at the play-off stage, the Norwegian suggested that the relentless sense of desperation to succeed had proved overwhelming.
“Everybody knows how much this game meant to Celtic, “ said Deila. “But it’s not about wanting to get to the Champions League – it’s about wanting it too much. The build-up to these qualifying games goes on for such a long time. It’s not only in the last week, it has been going on for the last six months. People have been talking about the Champions League for that long and Tuesday night was the final game.
“It’s okay for me that it’s all about the Champions League, but it’s something we have to deal with. We played ourselves out of it on Tuesday and deserved to lose. We had an okay result from the first leg at Celtic Park, but the performance in Malmo was not even close to what we can produce.”
For a club which believes it belongs in the Champions League, accepting Europa League status is difficult to take. The fact that Malmo will be by some distance the lowest-ranked team in today’s Champions League group stage draw in Monaco only serves to increase a sense that Celtic have under-achieved badly in the tournament under Deila.
Provided with a notionally simpler task in the Champions Route section of qualifiers, which avoids them facing any clubs from the top 13 Uefa nations, Celtic have been unable to justify their seeding on Deila’s watch.
His only aggregate wins in Champions League qualifying ties have come against teams from Iceland (twice) and Azerbaijan.
After losing to Maribor of Slovenia in the play-off round last year, having only reached that phase after a 6-1 aggregate defeat by Legia Warsaw in the previous round was overturned on an administrative error by the Polish champions, Deila asked to be judged 12 months down the line.
He maintains progress has been made in that period but the performance in the Swedbank Stadium provided damning evidence to the contrary.
“We always fight to get into the Champions League, we want to be a Champions League club,” added Deila.
“But you can’t say that when you produce the kind of performance we showed in Malmo and we didn’t deserve anything more on the night.
“But it’s still better than we did last year. We made the play-off this time (by winning in the previous round) but we weren’t good enough to get into the Champions League.
“I think we have progressed but in Sweden it looked like we were caught up by the importance of the game. It’s hard to say if it feels worse than last season. I have the same feeling as I had after losing to Legia, but this time we were closer to the Champions League.”
Celtic captain Scott Brown, who was totally dominated by Malmo midfielder Enoch Adu on Tuesday night, bared his soul in the aftermath by declaring he felt “ashamed” of the performance.
“We all have that feeling,” said Deila. “I completely agree with Scott. We didn’t get up to the level we wanted, not even close to it, and that’s very disappointing. We have the players for that level – Nir Bitton, Scott and Stefan Johansen who we have seen are all good enough – but on the night we were not good enough as a team.”
Ahead of the summer transfer window closing next Tuesday night, Celtic now find themselves in a different bargaining position as Deila seeks fresh faces for the Europa League campaign.
“That won’t be a main problem for us,” he claimed. “Of course the Champions League is a higher level, but again there are still a lot of players who want to play for Celtic.”
Deila wore a shell-shocked expression as he dissected the Malmo defeat, but he insists he will not allow himself to wallow in the disappointment.
He is mindful of the need to ensure Celtic maintain their domestic pre-eminence in Scotland if he is to be afforded a third shot at Champions League success next year.
“It’s not going to take me a few weeks to recover from this,” he said. “I have to be ready for the league game against St Johnstone on Saturday.
“That’s just how it is. It would be very strange if I was very happy and standing here smiling in front of you right now. But we have to restore our pride on Saturday, to get back on track again, get back to winning games and looking ahead.”
Europa League: Celtic’s possible rivals
FELLOW former European champions Borussia Dortmund, Ajax and Liverpool are among the major attractions Celtic could face in the group stage of the Europa League. Depending on how tonight’s play-off ties in the tournament are concluded, Celtic will be in either Pot 2 or Pot 3 for the draw which takes place in Monaco tomorrow at noon.
German giants Dortmund will be among the top seeds, assuming they see out their play-off tie against Norwegian side Odd. They are leading 4-3 after the first leg but at one stage trailed 3-0. Dutch heavyweights Ajax, who lead Czech outfit Jablonec 1-0 from the first leg of their play-off, will also be in Pot 1 if they progress.
Liverpool have qualified directly for the group stage, as have Tottenham. Southampton can join them, but must overcome Midtjylland in Denmark tonight after a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their play-off last week.