CELTIC saw their Champions League qualifying campaign take another bizarre administrative twist when they mistakenly left Efe Ambrose at home when they flew to Maribor for the first leg of their play-off round tie.
The Scottish champions believed the Nigerian defender, sent off in the first leg of their third qualifying round tie against Legia Warsaw, was still suspended for tonight’s game in Slovenia.
But following their arrival in Maribor yesterday afternoon, they discovered Ambrose is in fact eligible and have now made plans for him to travel today and join the rest of the squad.
It was another near-farcical development in the saga of a campaign which saw Celtic, beaten 6-1 on aggregate by Legia, reinstated in the tournament after it emerged the Polish champions had fielded defender Bartosz Bereszynski as a late substitute in the second leg of the tie at Murrayfield.
Legia’s failure to register Bereszynski for the previous round against St Patrick’s Athletic meant he had not, as they believed, served an outstanding three-match suspension from last season. As a result, Uefa decided Legia had to forfeit the second leg against Celtic 3-0, allowing Ronny Deila’s side to progress on aggregate.
Ambrose was shown a straight red card when Celtic lost 4-1 to Legia in Poland, incurring an automatic one-match ban. He served it by sitting out the second leg, even though it was subsequently declared forfeit, but Celtic believed he would also miss the first leg against Maribor.
“There was some complication with communication problems,” said Deila. “We didn’t think he was ready, because he got two matches. But, in the end, it is one match.
“He didn’t come with us today but he is coming tomorrow now. I am very happy about that, because we need defenders.”
Two weeks after declaring his Celtic squad was not of a sufficient standard to compete in the Champions League, Deila now believes they are ready to effect a remarkable transformation and fully capitalise on their reprieve in the tournament.
The Celtic manager was scathingly honest in his assessment of his players in the immediate aftermath of the defeat to Legia, outlining the necessity to “build a new team” at the club.
But the stunning turn of events since then have presented Deila with another opportunity to make an instant impact in Europe’s elite club competition. The Norwegian is confident both he and his players have learned from the errors made against Legia and are ready to put them right against Maribor.
Deila insists the progress he has been able to make over the past fortnight on the training ground, supplemented by Saturday’s impressive 6-1 Premiership win over Dundee United, has convinced him they are in fact ready to take their place in the Champions League group stage this season.
“When we played Legia, I hadn’t been with the players for long,” said Deila. “But I feel more comfortable with them now. I know what kind of team I have, I know the strengths of the players now.
“Also, the players are looking in much better shape. They are fitter than they were against Legia and have adapted more to working under me. So that puts us in a better position than we had the last time.
“I think everyone wants to prove Celtic are still a Champions League team. The players really want to get into the group stage.
“We have got another chance but I don’t think that puts any extra pressure on us. There is always pressure to get to the Champions League.
“But if we don’t make it, it’s because we are not good enough and we’ll have to take it from there. But I think we have improved in the last two weeks. We are more prepared and I have a good feeling that we can make a good performance in Maribor and get a good result to take home to Glasgow.
“Of course you have to think long term with what you want to do as a manager, but in the short term everything is about a result against Maribor now.
“We will focus on the right things. My energy, and the energy of the staff, is that we know what we are going to do. We know the players much better than we did in Warsaw.”
Deila will be without winger James Forrest who suffered a hamstring injury on Saturday, prompting Celtic’s frantic efforts to try and register loan signing Wakaso Mubarak in time to be available against Maribor which he admitted were looking slim last night.
The Ghana winger has joined the Scottish champions on a season-long deal from Russian club Rubin Kazan and Deila is eager to start working with him.
“He will be an important player to have in the squad, especially with James being out,” said Deila. “Mubarak is a very good deliverer of the ball and also very good both defensively and attacking wise.
“I know African players and have had good experiences working with them. Sometimes they come from tough backgrounds where there’s not so much education. You have to adapt to that when you are leading people from those places. The first year or two in Europe can be difficult for them.
“They have the hunger, that’s true. It is important they keep that hunger. Sometimes when they get a bit of success, they can become individualistic. If he gets here in time, I’ll have to speak to him first and see how he is. I’m not a gambler.”
Welsh full-back Adam Matthews, who pulled up injured during the warm-up on Saturday, will again miss out tonight.
Deila, meanwhile, has expressed his surprise at the SFA’s disciplinary system which saw Dutch winger Derk Boerrigter accept a two-match suspension for diving to earn Celtic a penalty in their 3-0 league win at St Johnstone last week.
“If you do something like that, it is normally a yellow card but he has a two-match ban,” said Deila. “That’s tough and very harsh. I haven’t seen that before. But okay, as long as it is the same for everyone, then we accept it.”