THE dismissive attitude towards the Europa League will be reflected in the half-empty stadium that will greet Celtic when they step out to face Dinamo Zagreb on Thursday.
Yet, the club’s assistant manager John Collins can offer up a personal defence of the tournament that ought to be compelling to those who follow his team.
“We have to be honest, everyone wants to be in the Champions League,” Collins says. “But, if you look at the Europa League, there are a lot of big clubs in it. If you go back the last 20 years of Celtic’s history, one of the greatest moments for the fans was Seville in 2003 [in the UEFA Cup final]. It certainly was for me, I took my dad and my brother there. So it can still be a very special tournament.
“We weren’t going to win the Champions League but can we win the Europa League? Who knows? We certainly have a better chance than we would have done in the Champions League. We owe it to our supporters to have a good run in the Europa League. Myself, Ronny [Deila] and the coaches want to win it. We want to win matches, go on European trips, see different stadiums. Hopefully, it will be good preparation for next season’s Champions League.
“The more European games the boys play in, the better. It can also enhance the players’ values and reputations. If you have ambitions to go on and play in bigger leagues, performing well in the Europa League can help them do that, 100 per cent.”
That players’ reputations can be enhanced was illustrated in the manner that Victor Wanyama and Fraser Forster grew in stature during Celtic’s Europa League campaign three years ago. In making a scoring debut in the 2-2 draw away to Salzburg earlier this month, Mubarak Wakaso gave a glimpse of what he could offer. Collins certainly has high hopes for the Ghanaian winger, who is on loan from Rubin Kazan.
“No matter how many are in the stadium it’s up to us to put on a performance and excite the fans and Wakaso can do that. Anyone who watched the Salzburg game can only have been impressed. Considering it was his first game and hadn’t trained much with us I thought it was an outstanding performance.
“He was a little terrier winning challenges, chasing back when he didn’t have the ball. He scored a great goal and a couple of times he got to the byline and lifted his head and picked out a pass. If he can maintain that standard of performance I think we will have signed a top, top player. I was in the dugout and he got me off my seat so I think it will be the same for the fans. I watched the game back and I thought ‘yes’. The Scottish fans love to see a bit of skill but they love to see the terrier attitude too. It looks like it comes naturally to him and when you have skill and speed it’s a great combination.”
It has been an entirely different story with Celtic’s other on-loan winger, Aleksandar Tonev, who has been charged with using “abusive language of a racist nature”, against Aberdeen a fortnight ago.
The SFA has postponed its hearing into the allegations due to the Bulgarian player’s international commitments. A disciplinary hearing was due to take place on 9 October but Tonev is set to be called up by Bulgaria for their Euro 2016 qualifiers against Croatia on 10 October and Norway three days later.
The SFA is now in discussion with both Aberdeen and Celtic over a new date and this is likely to be announced tomorrow.
Deila has stated he “knows” his player is innocent – a bold statement from the Norwegian. Collins says Celtic have backed their player for one straightforward reason.
“If he tells you 100 per cent that he’s not said what he’s supposed to have said, we have to support him. Of course we have,” he says. “We don’t want to talk about any other scenario because it’s an if, but or maybe. You can only go on someone looking in your eyes and telling you. I never encountered racism on the pitch. I’m 100 per cent against it. It has no part to play in life, never mind football. Tonev is fine, he’s just getting on with his training. We don’t talk about it, we’ve moved on and we’ll let the authorities deal with it.”