THE UEFA rule book may not just account for the fact that Celtic will be playing a Champions League play-off first leg away to Maribor on Wednesday, it could provide assistance once Ronny Deila’s side-step out on to the pitch at the Ljudski vrt.
The stadium name translates as “People’s Garden”, but all has not been rosy in that in the governing body’s eyes.
It is perhaps an irony that it was a Celtic cross banner – now associated with far-right football fans – waved by the club’s Viole Ultras in a Champions League qualifier which will result in the jug area, a section of the south stand, being closed for the visit of the Scottish champions. It will mean the capacity being reduced from around 12,000 to little over 9,000 and may remove some of the intensity from an artful arena that is renowned for being atmospheric.
A confident Maribor do not expect this closure to impede their progress to the competition’s group stages after exiting at this final qualifier in the previous two campaigns. In this they are judging Celtic on the 6-1 trouncing they suffered on the pitch against Legia Warsaw that did not cost Deila’s side because the Poles had their 2-0 away leg win wiped, a 3-0 forfeit loss replace it through fielding a suspended player.
If the Slovenian side’s belief is to be misplaced, Celtic must help themselves by demonstrating, against a lower ranked side than Legia, that they were better than they showed in two awful displays. To do that, Deila must be better prepared to compromise in his convictions that his teams must play open football on the front foot.
There were suggestions in his chat this week that, however reluctantly, his 4-2-3-1 shape may be sacrificed for a formation closer to a 4-5-1 as he learns lessons from Legia. “I think in Europe I have to compromise because it’s short term and its about results. But if you go into the group stages then you have a reached a bit of the goal.
“Then you can learn from the matches and at home you can be more offensive. Away you have to adapt more and be more careful. But these two games, of course, we have to put up the team that gives us the best opportunity of winning. It’s not about development in those games, it’s about winning. And that’s how I go into these games. [But] I’m looking forward to the day that I just say to the players ‘go and play normally’. That will be good. But I know that you have to know where we are, weaknesses, strengths, and approach it from there in the short term. We have to get the best out of the team compared to the others. We shall see how it will be.”
Deila’s appreciation of where Celtic “are” in European terms might not thrill the club’s followers. “If someone thinks we are a top Champions League team, that is completely wrong. If the expectation is up here [puts a flat hand at head height] and the level is down here [holds hand at chest level] then maybe I am finished before we start.
“We struggled in the Champions League last year. We almost lost to Elfsborg. That’s the standard. Okay, we beat Ajax at home, that was a good match, but we are a team who could reach the Champions League, or maybe not. There are also some players gone from that team now. We have to work from there to get better.”
Yet, Deila would have no excuses were his team as desperate on the pitch against Maribor as they proved against Legia. And no paperwork error get-out.