RONNY Deila admitted last night that Celtic were firmly second best to Red Bull Salzburg in their Europa League group but insisted his team can still progress deep into the tournament next year.
Deila’s men qualified for the last 32 in less than auspicious fashion as they suffered a 3-1 defeat at the hands of the Austrian champions at Celtic Park but still clinched second place in Group D as rivals Dinamo Zagreb were beaten 1-0 by Astra in Romania.
Celtic will now be unseeded in the draw for the knockout phase which takes place on 15 December, four days after they complete their group stage schedule against Dinamo in Croatia.
Deila remained upbeat and optimistic last night as he assessed Celtic’s prospects of further progress in a competition which will be augmented by eight clubs dropping down from the Champions League.
“The best team have won the group,” said Deila. “Salzburg have shown themselves to be a very good team, scoring five goals away in Zagreb and winning almost every game.
“We have been the second best team and now we have to fight to try and get into the last 16 and then the quarter-finals.
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“Our expectation is to win every game. Everything is possible over two games in a tie. Three months is a long time until we play the last 32 tie in February, so we are going to prepare very well for it. I’m really looking forward to it. We also have one more group game in Zagreb which is another European game to prepare for, which is good.
“We will see what we do in Zagreb. We will use the game to try and get a win and have a good performance.
“I don’t think the third placed teams coming down from the Champions League are any better than the team we met today. This is the standard. Today we met a modern football team in my opinion. They were an unbelievably hard working 11 players and they were very direct and intense and if we can handle this we can handle the Champions League teams as well.
“It depends who we draw. Everything can happen in two-legged games. We want to go all the way. Everything is possible in football, so of course we can.”
Celtic were 2-0 down after just 13 minutes, both scored by Salzburg’s Brazilian striker Alan, and appeared in danger of being overwhelmed by the visitors.
Stefan Johansen’s goal after half an hour – his third in as many consecutive Europa League ties for Celtic – brought Deila’s men back into contention. But despite an improved second half display by Celtic, Salzburg made sure of their victory with Naby Keita’s stoppage time strike.
“We are very happy to get through but of course we wanted to it by ourselves and win the game,” said Deila. “Salzburg are a very good football team and every time they attacked, I felt threatened. They were very direct, which we knew they would be. We started the game very poorly and conceded two easy goals – one from a set play which shouldn’t happen. We put ourselves in a bad situation.
“But then the boys showed real courage. They fought to get back into the game at 2-1 and then I was proud of them in the second half. We really attacked them and put them under pressure. We put lots of crosses in but couldn’t put them into the net. They then got a third goal at the end but that will always happen when you put everyone into attack. I didn’t feel well after 15 minutes when we were 2-0 down. But we fought ourselves into the match again and the players did everything they could. That’s what you have to expect of them.”
Deila sprang a surprise by selecting Leigh Griffiths up front, leaving £2.2 million striker Stefan Scepovic on the bench.
“We knew Salzburg would press high and leave space in behind which Leigh could get into,”explained Deila. “He did a good job.
“He is much fitter now, he is starting to have the fitness I want.”
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