AS the blame game begins in earnest following Celtic’s Champions League elimination, Stefan Johansen has insisted new manager Ronny Deila should be absolved of any culpability.
The consequences of Tuesday night’s 1-0 defeat at home to Maribor, which effectively saw Celtic contrive to get knocked out of European football’s elite tournament for the second time in three weeks, will reverberate around the Parkhead club for some time.
Discontent among supporters over the level of investment in the playing staff during the summer boiled over in the form of a protest immediately after the match, with chief executive Peter Lawwell and his fellow board members the target of their ire.
But Deila has not been exempt from criticism, with his team selections and tactics against Legia Warsaw in the third qualifying round and then against Maribor on Tuesday being assessed unfavourably by many.
It has been a tumultuous start to the Norwegian coach’s tenure at the Scottish champions and his failure to make the most of the 6-1 aggregate defeat to Legia being wiped out by the Polish club’s administrative ineptitude has intensified scrutiny on his capability as Neil Lennon’s successor.
But as Celtic count the cost of missing out on a £20 million Champions League group stage bonanza for the first time in three years, Deila’s compatriot Johansen is adamant his mentor is not the guilty party.
“It is not his fault that we are out of the Champions League,” said the Norwegian international midfielder. “I do not think it is right [that he takes criticism]. Of course he needs time to put his stamp on the team.
“We win together and we lost together. Against Maribor, we had a game plan but the players were not able to do it. So that is not the coach’s fault.
“He made it clear what he wanted us to do. We wanted to control the game but is was us as players who did not manage it.”
Asked if he understood the unhappiness of the supporters, following what may now be one of the last near- capacity attendances at Celtic Park for some time, Johansen was non-committal.
“I am not going to comment on that,” said the 23-year-old. “I wish to concentrate on the team and what I am going to do.
“I hope it is not the last big crowd of the season. The fans were amazing. We did not play well but they still stood behind us. They were fantastic and I hope they come back and cheer for us. They are as disappointed as us. It is tough for everyone.
“It was a bad game against Maribor. We did not play the way we wanted to play. We wanted to go out and control the game after getting a good result away from home in Slovenia. It is very tough for us to take now.
“Although the game wasn’t good from our point of view, we had our chances. Even when we went 1-0 down, we had a couple of good chances to equalise. But overall, we did not play the way we wanted to play.”
Johansen dismissed the suggestion that the significance of the occasion had proved too much for some of the players in the Celtic line-up.
“I don’t think so,” he replied. “This is the type of game that everybody wants to play in. A lot of players have played this type of game before, so I don’t think it is about nerves. We just didn’t play well, we didn’t manage to keep the ball and the counter attacks hit us bad.
“Not keeping the ball as well as we wanted was very frustrating. We are a team but in the first half we had to chase the ball a lot and that is not what we want at home. We want to control the game and entertain the crowd, so it is disappointing.
“It is probably as low as I have felt in football. I want to play in the Champions League group stage, everyone wants to play there. We had a great chance to get there and it is tough to miss out.
“To be honest, we don’t deserve to be there after losing two qualifying ties against Legia and Maribor. We are not good enough right now. We need to improve as a team and as individual players.”
Celtic now drop into the Europa League with the group stage draw taking place in Monte Carlo tomorrow. While the competition pales in comparison with the Champions League, it still offers potentially high-profile contests against the likes of Sevilla, Fiorentina, Everton and Dinamo Kiev.
Johansen is determined that Celtic will not lack motivation or incentive for the rest of the season.
“It is still early in the campaign and of course everyone wanted to play Champions League football,” he said. “But we are in the Europa League which is still a good tournament and one we will try to achieve something in.
“Obviously we want to win the Scottish Premiership again and we want to win the Scottish Cup as well this season. It is tough for everyone at the club right now, after the disappointment against Maribor, but we need to get our heads up. It’s going to be difficult, but that’s what we have to do.”