EVEN IF Ronny Deila finds himself leading his team out at Hampden next May with a domestic treble on the line if they can win the Scottish Cup final, he will still not have a more important assignment in his first season as Celtic manager than the one he faces tomorrow night.
It is why any criticism of the Norwegian’s decision to make ten changes to his line-up for Saturday’s Premiership fixture in Inverness simply misses the point.
Regardless of the 1-0 defeat at the Caledonian Stadium – and it was a game the radically reshuffled Celtic might just as easily have won had Nir Bitton’s shot not struck the crossbar at 0-0 – Deila was 100 per cent correct to rest a raft of his key players ahead of the Champions League play-off return leg against Maribor.
The 90 minutes – or perhaps 120 minutes and penalty kicks – against the Slovenian champions at Celtic Park carries immeasurably greater significance than any other game Deila will prepare for this campaign.
Having received the unlikeliest of ‘Get out of jail free’ cards following the initial 6-1 aggregate loss to Legia Warsaw in the third qualifying round, Deila is not about to leave anything else to chance as Celtic look to make the most of their good fortune and get past Maribor to claim a potential £20 million Champions League group stage bounty.
The decision to give Craig Gordon, Mikael Lustig, Virgil van Dijk and Emilio Izaguirre the weekend off, while restricting Callum McGregor, Stefan Johansen and Anthony Stokes to substitute appearances, was hatched in Deila’s mind even before their 1-1 draw in the first leg in Maribor last Wednesday.
If he wasn’t exactly writing off the weekend journey up the A9 as a complete irrelevance, he had reached the firm conclusion that it mattered little in the greater scheme of things for Celtic.
As Deila has already observed more than once during the early weeks of his tenure, he has the best squad of players in Scotland at his disposal and winning the domestic title should be little more than a formality. That reality has not been challenged by the result in Inverness.
It is risible to suggest the defeat provided any evidence of Celtic’s potential vulnerability as they pursue a fourth consecutive league triumph this season. They will, as Inverness boss John Hughes stated before Saturday’s match, win it “at a canter”, just as they have in the previous two seasons in the absence of a challenge from their traditional rivals Rangers.
Rather than cause any damage to Celtic’s reputation with his team selection on Saturday, Deila simply exposed the lack of credibility Scottish football’s top flight currently suffers from. With all due respect to the impressive and progressive management of Derek McInnes and Jackie McNamara at Aberdeen and Dundee United respectively in the past couple of years, their clubs are still no more likely to present a credible title challenge to Celtic. The rebranding of the division as the Premiership has been unable to disguise the fact it is a one-horse race, nor persuade anyone to sponsor a ‘competition’ which has now entered its second year without a headline financial backer.
So while Deila will never willingly throw three points away, he knows he can afford to experience results like he did on Saturday in the cause of maximising his team’s readiness for more challenging tasks in Europe.
In season 2012-13, Neil Lennon’s Celtic were criticised for their domestic inconsistency on either side of Champions League matches as they reached the last 16 of the tournament. But despite losing seven SPL games that campaign, they won the title by 16 points and clinched it with four games to spare.
Last season, Lennon placed greater emphasis on consistency in the Premiership and Celtic duly lost just one league game, winning the title by a massive 29 points and wrapping it up with seven games to spare. Yet that came against the backdrop of a far less impressive showing in the Champions League as they finished bottom of their group.
Most Celtic supporters, already safe in the knowledge they will be watching Scott Brown collect the Premiership trophy again at the end of the season, would settle for a few more days like Saturday if it is to mean being able to savour more memorable moments in European football’s elite club tournament.
In Deila, they appear to have a manager who sees the bigger picture.