WHEN you arrive in a city on the first day of its celebrated fashion week, it’s only appropriate that you have ambitions to be a trend-setter.
Ronny Deila and his Celtic players landed in Milan yesterday afternoon around the same time as Gucci’s models were taking to the catwalk to unveil their latest collection and launch one of the world’s most famous style festivals.
The focus of those wearing green and white on the stage they will tread tonight will be to bring an unprecedented achievement for Scottish clubs firmly into vogue.
It is now well documented that 14 previous European matches at the San Siro stadium have failed to deliver a single victory for teams from Scotland. After last week’s scintillating 3-3 draw in the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie against Inter Milan at Celtic Park, only a win this evening is likely to be good enough for the Scottish champions to extend their run in the tournament this season.
Deila, the instinctively aspirational Celtic manager, is convinced his team can provide it. He saw enough of Inter’s less than stellar defending in Glasgow to encourage him that chances will come the way of the visitors again.
But he also knows it will be an evening when his own back four must find a level of solidity which has thus far eluded them in Europe this season.
Celtic have conceded 22 goals in 13 games so far, keeping just three clean sheets – two of those against Icelandic minnows KR Reykjavik in the Champions League qualifiers.
So if there is one player who could hold the key to success for Deila’s team tonight it is the man widely regarded as their most valuable asset.
Virgil van Dijk’s domestic form for Celtic since joining the club has been impressive enough to see him consistently linked with a big money move to the English Premier League. The 23-year-old Dutch central defender has often been less convincing in Europe but Deila believes a match of tonight’s magnitude is the ideal opportunity for the player to prove he merits the hype which often surrounds him.
“These are the most important games for both Virgil and Jason Denayer alongside him to play in,” said Deila. “They can show where they are right now in their career.
“There are a lot of young players on the pitch who haven’t played in so many of these games and in this kind of atmosphere.
“I think they will get through it in a good way but they have to play more as a unit in the back four.
“We are looking to reach Champions League level and these games against Inter are like that. We will get good answers about the players and the team.
“There were a lot of positive things for me last Thursday. But the problem was the goals we conceded.
“In the Scottish Premiership, we don’t get punished so hard for mistakes, because we have 70 per cent possession in almost every game.
“In Europe, it is more about balance, about offensive marking in the defence instead of allowing someone to have a go at you. It is different and it tells me and the players more about where we have to work to improve.
“But sometimes these matches can get built up too much. When the pressure is on, that’s when you need to show yourself. Scott Brown does it for us and has that experience.
“All the players, including Virgil, have to do the same. It’s about having the right focus. If you think too much about what is going to happen before the game, then you have already lost it.
“You have to treat it like every other game. Virgil is more than good enough to be a top player at this level. It is just a matter of relaxing and doing the same things he does in Scotland.
“We showed what was possible in the first leg but we need to defend better over here. I have watched Inter’s last three or four games and I know we have a great opportunity to create chances against them. It’s up to us to be clinical when we do and also to close them down at the other end.
“We only need to score one goal if we don’t concede any. We have played some good matches away from home in Europe this season, against Maribor when we should have won over there and also in Salzburg. So we have to build on what we did in those games. We are in good shape now and have a lot of confidence.
“This is my biggest challenge as Celtic manager so far and it’s the highest level I’ve been at as a manager yet. I’ve heard about the history of Scottish teams in the San Siro but winning away in Europe is difficult for teams from a lot of countries. You have to have confidence in the way you play and if we can put on our best performance of the season so far, then we have a good chance to progress.”
Deila’s main selection dilemma tonight would appear to be whether to change his first leg line-up in order to accommodate the fit-again Kris Commons who scored twice on his return to action against Hamilton on Sunday.
“He is one we are thinking about for the starting line-up,” confirmed Deila. “He pushed himself back into contention at the weekend and we know what he can do. But the subs will also be important, just like John Guidetti was last week when he came on and scored to make it 3-3. So I’m not so worried about how many minutes they play, it’s what they do in those minutes that matters.”
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