JUST over a week ago, the theory was that, if Ronny Deila did not preside over a victory in the Old Firm derby, he would never be forgiven. Two matches later, his team are on course for a treble and the supporters are chanting his name.
Hero worship has been slow to come his way. It took a while for the Norwegian to establish a settled starting line-up and convince them how to play, longer still to kick their habit of following two or three forward steps with one in the other direction.
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Now, as the season reaches a decisive phase, all the signs are that their progress is for real. Not only did goals by Leigh Griffiths and Stefan Johansen on Saturday earn them an easy passage into today’s Scottish Cup quarter- final draw, it gave them their sixth consecutive victory, a sequence in which they have conceded not a single goal.
Deila spent much of the game leaning on the side of his dugout, occasionally waving to supporters when they sang his song. His team were as comfortable throughout the 90 minutes as they had been against Rangers the week before, and Ross County the week before that. All the changes he has asked his players to make, all the work he has demanded, seem to be paying off.
If it was too easy for Celtic, that’s because they made it so. Deila said it was as good and high-tempo a performance as they had produced since his arrival last summer. His only disappointment was that the scoreline did not adequately reflect their superiority.
Just seven minutes after the lunchtime kick-off at Dens Park, they were a goal up and cruising. Mikael Lustig’s perfect cross made it relatively easy for Griffiths, whose glancing header drifted across the goalkeeper and into the far corner.
That they did not add to their lead in the first half was thanks almost entirely to Scott Bain. Griffiths, Johansen and James Forrest, who started in place of Anthony Stokes, were all denied by the Dundee goalkeeper, who was the last man on each occasion.
Celtic’s second arrived early in the second half. Griffiths found too much space at the back post, from where he returned a header across goal. When Bain reached low to palm it away, Johansen was first to the loose ball, which he quickly slotted in from an angle.
Johansen might have had another when his cross, with the outside of his boot, threatened to sneak under the bar. Bain turned it against the woodwork, thereby denying the 24-year-old Swede his seventh goal of a season in which he has been an example to those around him.
Early in the campaign, he was still a central midfielder, who gave balance to the team in his berth alongside Scott Brown. Now he plays further forward, supporting the striker with a combination of industry and adventure. He is a hungrier, hard-working player than you expect to see in the hole, which only inspires his team-mates.
He is perfect for the urgent pressing game that Deila has persuaded his players to buy into. Griffiths is a better all-round striker than he used to be. Kris Commons admits that he is giving more off the ball. He and Stokes have both accepted the need to play out wide, even though they would rather be in the middle.
But it is not just the players who have recognised the need to adapt. So, too, has Deila given up on some of the promises he made shortly after his arrival. He admits that one or two of his principles have been sacrificed in search of results. And the days of making wholesale changes to his team every week have long gone.
Deila has conceded some ground, as have the players, and the result is that they have met halfway in a show of ominous consistency. Johansen says that a mutual respect between the players and their manager has enabled them to come this far.
“Nobody knew him before he came here, and he didn’t know the players either,” said the Swede, “so you’ve got to meet. You’ve got to get the best out of the players. I started the season in the midfield, but now I play more as a No 10. You’ve just got to adapt to what the gaffer wants. He’s a good manager for saying what he wants from the players.”
It bodes well for Celtic in their tilt at three domestic trophies and, whisper it, the Europa League. The manager said that his team were far better prepared for their forthcoming knockout tie against Inter Milan than they had been for the group stage. The round of 32 will be a fascinating measure of their development.