HIS attempts to engineer Celtic a place in the Champions League this season may have proved disastrous, but Ronny Deila believes the pairing of his team with Internazionale in the last 32 of the Europa League will make for a tie with all the trappings of an occasion fit for football’s premier club tournament.
The first leg to be staged at Celtic Park on 19 February will be “a big, big game”, according to the Norwegian. He anticipates a “full” stadium creating “an unbelievable atmosphere that can push the team to a good result”. Frankly, the possibility of a sell-out will make the visit of Inter likely the only time in his first season that Deila will experience what it is like to play at home without seeing rows of empty green seats.
A 60,000-capacity crowd can be practically guaranteed because of the cash-register capacities of nostalgia. The build-up to the encounter will be drenched with memories, of course, because it was the Milan behemoths that were vanquished in 1967 as Celtic emerged triumphant in the European Cup; the forerunner of the present-day Champions League. Yet the magnitude of this 2015 hook-up can be considered a bonus, and a burden.
Deila is more than willing to talk up the chances of his team progressing to the last 16 of the Europa League. His belief sprouts from the fact that Inter, currently 12th in Serie A, are “not at the same level as they were four years ago” when they snared the Champions League. Such optimism appears shared by the Celtic support.
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However, all the empirical evidence points to the Scottish title holders’ interest in continental competition ending at the San Siro, an amphitheatre that Deila will visit for the first time when his team contest the second leg of their last-32 tie on 26 February. It is 11 years since Celtic knocked out a team from one of the big four leagues in Europe – Barcelona then beaten by Martin O’Neill’s men in the Uefa Cup. The Glasgow club are far from the level they were then.
In that long-gone era, Celtic operated with a budget that would not have looked out of place in one of the leading leagues on the continent. Even with such resources, though, the club also have never finished above an Italian team – or any side from England, Spain, Germany – in the group stages of either the Champions League or the Europa League – before or after 2004.
Indeed, their fabled home group wins over such as Barcelona, AC Milan, Manchester United and Juventus were, in part, achieved because the results caused no collateral damage to these opponents’ Champions League ambitions.
The latest attempt at a big-four breakthrough will allow Deila to share the company of Inter coach Roberto Mancini for a second time. The Celtic manager’s old club Stromsgodset had a tie-up with Manchester City. It meant the Norwegian club became a place where young players at the English club would be loaned to aid their development.
The relationship also allowed for the 39-year-old to enhance his education four years ago by coming over to watch City training under Mancini, who boasts two Uefa Cups, and title wins in Italy and England since entering the coaching domain 14 years ago.
“He is a great manager, he gets good results and is very structured and especially very good in his defensive work. It was a great experience,” continued Deila. “He had an answer for every question I had. He is very clear on how he wants to play football. Now he wants to build a culture of winning.
“It is so important to get references from the highest level and what the best are doing. Manchester City are one of the biggest clubs, maybe the biggest now in the world. I talked a lot with the staff there, I had a talk with Mancini and also a very good talk with Patrick Vieira, who I have big respect for.”
Deila’s ability to maintain these contacts were “positive” in the loan deals struck to bring John Guidetti and Jason Denayer from City in the summer. These two players could be central to Celtic’s slim chances of causing an upset against Inter.
Deila expects that he will have a stronger squad come the end of the January transfer window. He cites the fact that Guidetti will be eligible to play in the last 32 of the Europa League having joined too late to appear in the group stages as adding “to the positive attitude”.
“I hope he will sign the contract [by then],” Deila joked. The 22-year-old Swedish striker, who will be out of contract with City in the summer, has shown himself in no rush to commit to Celtic – despite gushing about his goal-plundering stay in Scotland.
“It’s going on,” Deila said of contract talks. “We’re talking and have an arrangement with the agent, so it’s going the right way. You never know [if it will be done by the new year]. We’ll see. The fans should know we’re really working hard on this.”
Celtic have their work cut out on this front, and the continental one.
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