EXACTLY what Ronny Deila will do at Celtic remains to be seen, after last night witnessed yet another disheartening defeat in a European home tie – even if Dinamo Zagreb’s loss away to Astra allowed Celtic to progress from Group D of their Europa League section come the end of the evening.
My friends, though, I’ll say it clear, the record will show, he took the blows, and did it his way.
Not a soul inside Celtic Park last night could have predicted the team that the Norwegian would send out against a slickly superior Salzburg last night. The line-up didn’t just eschew predictability… with Leigh Griffiths given a first senior start for three months. It didn’t just eschew popularity – with no place for the fit-again Kris Commons.
It seemed to eschew plain sense – with tactical changes allied to enforced changes making the starting 11 a new concoction among the many served up by the Celtic manager across five months of competitive fixtures.
When you throw together a new-look side, it can take time to gel. For the opening 20 minutes last night, when Celtic were taken apart by the pressing-at-pace of their opponents to face a two-goal-going-on-four deficit, Deila’s team appeared to have all the gelling properties of bone-dry sand.
At that stage what demanded to be questioned was the Norwegian’s seemingly unfathomable personnel choices. With first-choice forward John Guidetti ineligible, there was little wrong in giving Griffiths an opportunity to start a European game for the first time since way back in July.
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But, here was the same Griffiths that didn’t even make the bench for the weekend win over Dundee.
In that slender victory, James Forrest was one of the most significant players in Celtic colours. Yet fast forward to last night and he effectively had to play second fiddle to Callum McGregor, whose form has sharply dropped off since he was making a habit of scoring in European sorties.
It is a manager’s prerogative to select the players he thinks best fit for the particular task faced. It is just that Celtic under Deila so often seem to be an awkward fit for the most exacting assignments.
Yet, for all that Commons’ omission – he appeared for the final 23 minutes – will be used as a stick to beat Deila, the breathless manner in which the ball was zipped around by the Austrians could well have had the 31-year-old chasing around to little effect.
Indeed, it was Alexandar Tonev more than Commons who added zip with his late cameo, abetted by Forrest, as Celtic recovered their honour, and almost a draw. They did so by showing pluck to fashion a series of chances that took them mighty close to adding to the smart finish on the half-hour mark by Stefan Johansen.
That strike, in turn, had transformed the confrontation from one in which it seemed certain Celtic would receive a caning.
Commons, ultimately, might have been receiving his final outing in the continental domain for Celtic in the east end of Glasgow. The fact he is considered a support player too old to be given the three-year deal he seeks suggests he could well be on his way in January, when he will be into the final six months of his contract and may talk to other clubs. Commons is the last player over the age of 26 Celtic paid a fee for – that £350,000 transfer approaching four years ago.
They have attempted to recast and revitalise with younger imports between the £1million and £2m mark but the fact that one of these, Johansen, last night netted his third goal in as many European games and another of these, Stefan Scepovic, could not make it off the bench, demonstrated they are having mixed success on that front.
Commons will remember highlights such as the victory over Barcelona that set Celtic on the way to the last 16 of the Champions League in 2012, and scoring vital goals to ease Celtic through the qualification stages for that land of milk and honey. With their third home defeat in Europe this season, and fifth in their own backyard in continental competition in little over 14 months, Celtic are now a team capable of reaching the knock-out stages of the second string Europa League. . . if they receive a favour or two elsewhere.
There is still little evidence from the Deila days what the direction of travel will be in the next two years. Or what shape Celtic will be in when he faces the final curtain.
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