CELTIC had hardly been paired with FC Stjarnan in the second round of the Champions League qualifiers yesterday morning before the Icelandic club’s twitter feed was offering their Scottish opponents the hand of friendship and telling how the tiny club’s fans “know how to have fun”.
Everyone in football has delighted in the Stjarnan’s players’ dedication to frivolity with their Iceland’s Got Talent-style elaborate goal celebrations. All told then, the tie, the first leg of which is only three weeks’ away, appears likely to be in the knockabout category for the Scottish champions.
What can’t be knocked is Celtic’s willingness to help their cause by no longer seeking to be gadabouts.
To put the challenge Stjarnan present in context, at the same stage of the competition a year ago, Celtic brushed aside then Icelandic champions KR Reykjavik 5-0 on aggregate. The only concern by the time it came to completing that success with a 4-0 “home” win at Murrayfield in late July was the tiredness evident in Celtic’s play. By that stage of their, uhm, pre-season, Celtic had played in seven games in four different countries.
When they head to Iceland for the return leg of their Champions League qualifier in the third week in July, the land of the midnight sun will represent their first experience of a seeing the orange glow in a different place this summer. Celtic pride themselves on being a progressive club. In that sense, it is remarkable that it has taken until Ronny Deila has bedded in with John Collins and John Kennedy beside him for it to be recognised that staycation-type summer schedules may offer greater power to stay in the very European competition that they must be fitted around.
Three games in Paisley – pitch relaying has placed Celtic Park out of commission – against Den Bosch, Dukla Prague and Real Sociedad as preparation for their first Champions League qualifier might seem in the mundane bracket. But the miles in the air the club used to put in criss-crossing the globe made little sense.
“Looking back to when I was a player, you had a lot more time before your first game,” said first-team coach Kennedy. “When you have four weeks and the internationals meet up later, before you know it the first game is there. Preparation-wise, you don’t get time. Sometimes you spend more time travelling on buses and going to games and we just thought it would be better this year to stay at home.
“We have a training ground here, players can go home to their families and it is a much more settled environment. The hope is that preparation will be better for us going into games. The long trips are good when you have more time. I’ve experienced it and it can be good for morale and going to nice parts of the world, but our priority is being best prepared for the Champions League. One thing I will say is that everyone is together and we’re doing what’s best for the club. We thought staying at home would give us the best foundation to get into the Champions League and the club has given us their full support.”
Stjarnan will not be unfamiliar with Scotland when they head here for their Celtic Park date on 14 or 15 July. Last summer they defeated Motherwell 5-4 on aggregate in the second qualifying round of the Europa League. A 2-2 draw at Fir Park was followed by a 3-2 win sealed with an extra-time decider.
The club have claimed the title in their homeland on three of the past four seasons, but are struggling in this season’s summer championship, lying sixth after eight games, seven points off the lead. Although believed to be weakened from the team that last year ousted Lech Poznan before being slaughtered 9-0 by Internazionale in the Europa League play-offs, they cannot be entirely dismissed by Celtic. Not when they failed to beat a Polish team not a world apart from Poznan in Legia Warsaw. Progress against them was only earned via an administrative error by the Poles, following a 6-1 on-field scoreline over two legs.
The episode sowed the seeds for a torrid time Ronny Deila experienced during his earlier months in charge.
In their new roles alongside the Norwegian in the rejigged management team created following Neil Lennon’s departure, Kennedy and Collins suffered alongside the clearly disorientated manager and squad. Kennedy believes the orientation of both is now transformed – as he hopes will be the quest for the Champions League group stages, which last August met an ignominious end at home to Maribor.
“Last year, a lot of changes were going on. We had a new management team getting to know the players, they were trying to understand what was wanted on the pitch, and the same time we were thrown into a Championship qualifier with a lot of pressure on us. We didn’t deserve to make it. However, we are in a much better place now. The players fully understand what we want them to do, what is required of them and they are much more settled, have more peace of mind to go and attack the games with no added pressure, or thinking too much about what we might be thinking. They know what is expected and that’s a key thing for us.
“[A year ago] it was just managing the situation as it moved along. I was getting to know the manager, still getting to know what he wanted. We had a lot of chats, spent a lot of time together, but that does take time. For the players, that is ten-fold. Looking back, it was a tough time. I think the manager will be a little more relaxed this time as he knows what he’s got here in front of him squad-wise. He knows the strengths and weaknesses. The players also know what he wants. As soon as we start training the players will know what’s coming and how we’ll want to play in these games. That’s important – that there’s an understanding there. A lot of players would have gone into the games [last year] not fully understanding what their job was or their role was. There are no excuses this year. They know, we know, and it’s up to us to do the business.”