TODAY has been marked as a red letter day in Ronny Deila’s diary ever since last November when he guided Stromsgodset to their first Norwegian title win for 43 years.
What Deila could not have envisaged seven months ago was that the Champions League draw he has been so eagerly anticipating would come around with him in charge of Celtic.
The 38-year-old’s coaching debut in European football’s elite tournament will now be at the helm of a club holding far higher expectations of progress to the group stages than the one he left earlier this month. Today’s second qualifying round draw at Uefa headquarters in Nyon could also hand Deila an instant return to Norway.
Stromsgodset are one of the possible opponents for Celtic, who are among the seeded clubs. They would represent one of the more difficult tasks the Scottish champions could face, although Deila would at least lack nothing in inside knowledge of the team from Drammen.
In a second qualifying round which Uefa normally draw on a loosely regional basis, Celtic are likely to face opponents from northern Europe. Perhaps the side they will be most keen to avoid are Swedish champions Malmö, the club who failed to tempt Deila away from Stromsgodset in January this year.
Now coached by former Norway manager Age Hareide, Malmö are seasoned European campaigners and Scottish football needs little reminding of their record 9-0 aggregate defeat of a hapless Hibs side in the Europa League last season. This year, Malmö are making a strong defence of their domestic title where they are currently six points clear of Elfsborg – the team Celtic edged past 1-0 on aggregate in the Champions League third qualifying round last season – after 12 games of the campaign.
A less testing introduction to life as Celtic manager for Deila may come in the form of British or Irish opposition. A rematch with Cliftonville, the Northern Ireland champions swept aside 5-0 on aggregate by Celtic at the same stage of last season’s Champions League, is a possibility.
The New Saints, the Oswestry-based Welsh champions, have only made it beyond the second qualifying round once in seven previous attempts and are another who would provide notionally straightforward progress for Celtic.
St Patrick’s Athletic, the League of Ireland champions who drew 2-2 with Aberdeen in a Dublin friendly on Saturday, are also in the geographical mix to face Celtic, along with Icelandic champions KR Reykjavik.
The first leg of Celtic’s second qualifying round tie will take place on 15 or 16 July, with the return fixture taking place a week later. The home match will be the first of what they hope will be three successful qualifiers to take place at Murrayfield which is to be their temporary European base while Celtic Park is unavailable due to the Commonwealth Games. Today, the harsh reality of Scotland’s steady slide down the Uefa co-efficient rankings in recent years will manifest itself with the earliest ever start to a European campaign – discounting the old Intertoto Cup – for one of the country’s clubs. Aberdeen will enter the Europa League in the first qualifying round with the first leg to take place on 3 July. Derek McInnes’s side will at least be seeded at this stage and will hope to benefit from Uefa’s geographical groupings.
The Northern Ireland pair of Glenavon and Crusaders, Welsh teams Airbus UK and Aberystwyth Town and League of Ireland sides Derry City and Dundalk are among those who would provide logistically uncomplicated opposition for the Dons. The draw for the second qualifying round will also take place, a stage of the competition in which Motherwell and St Johnstone will enter the fray. Motherwell will be seeded in this round as they participate in Europe for the sixth time in the last seven seasons, testimony to the levels of domestic consistency achieved at Fir Park in recent times.
Scottish Cup winners St Johnstone will be among the unseeded teams in the second qualifying round and could face a repeat of last season’s tie at the same stage, with Rosenborg among their possible opponents. The 2-1 aggregate win by Tommy Wright’s team against the former Champions League regulars from Norway was one of the most notable achieved by a Scottish team in recent years.
Collectively, it can only be hoped Scotland’s four representatives all make reasonable progress this season to arrest the country’s plummeting Uefa ranking.
If Celtic can reach the group stage of the Champions League for a third successive year, this time supported by longer runs in the Europa League by the other three teams, it would be a start.
The Champions League first and second qualifying rounds draw is scheduled to begin at 11am UK time, with the Europa League draws beginning at noon.