AMID all the extraordinary off-the-field headlines which have dominated Celtic’s Champions League qualifying campaign, there has been little doubt over who has been their star performer on the pitch.
Callum McGregor once again proved himself an away-day specialist on European duty when he scored his club’s potentially crucial goal as they drew the first leg of their Play-Off round tie 1-1 with Maribor in Slovenia on Wednesday night.
It followed his strikes on foreign soil against KR Reykjavik and Legia Warsaw in the previous two rounds, the one in
Poland ultimately proving hugely significant as it counted towards Celtic winning that controversial tie on away goals when Legia forfeited the second leg 3-0 for fielding a suspended player.
It is not just McGregor’s goal-scoring from midfield which has impressed. The 21-year-old, shipped out on loan to Notts County in English football’s third tier last season, has caught the eye with his overall game intelligence and composure on the continental stage.
Celtic supporters might be wary about getting too excited about a young Scottish talent who makes a big initial impression in the Champions League, having witnessed Tony Watt’s career at the club decline in the aftermath of his winning goal against Barcelona two seasons ago.
But new Celtic manager Ronny Deila, who was critical of Watt’s attitude after he was sold to Standard Liege earlier this month, has no such concerns about McGregor.
Having invested such faith in McGregor during the early weeks of his tenure, Deila believes he is destined for sustained success at both Champions League and senior international level with Celtic and Scotland.
“People are different and McGregor is never going to let his feet get off the ground in that way,” said Deila. “They are two different people. McGregor is training hard every day, he’s a calm person. I have no worries for him.
“You see the people who have problems and when they do, we are looking after them all the time. You see their body language and their awareness in all that they do. If a player is not performing, he’s not playing. It’s about individuals, it’s about right and wrong.
“It’s hard to say what Callum can achieve in the game but now he’s at a high level. He can reach a high international level. I think he can be even quicker and even fitter but he needs more experience.
“He has surprised me. I didn’t know much about him when I first came to the club. He got a chance in pre-season and he scored. I was looking at him then he played another game and was good and I thought he was a player. He has shown himself to be good enough when he gets the chance.
“I know that he is now performing well with Celtic so why couldn’t he do it in the Champions League? If the others can do it, he can do it as well.
“He has impressed me every time he plays. He’s just a quality player. He’s fantastic. He still has a lot to improve, but what I like is that he works two ways. He is not only offensive. He is also doing the defensive job.
“Maybe in Maribor he was even better in defence than he was in offence.
“If you are going to play with three or four in the midfield, you need wingers who want to work hard, especially in Europe. That’s the target. That’s how we want it.
“Callum is well educated. He has fantastic technique and balance. The touch is unbelievable. He’s a goalscorer. When you see him shooting in training, you understand why he scores goals because he has unbelievable quality in finishing.”
McGregor has been an ever-present under Deila so far and while he could be one of those rested tomorrow, when Celtic play at Inverness ahead of Tuesday night’s second leg against Maribor, the Norwegian coach has no concerns over potential burn-out.
“You have to think about how much you use him, but he is not really young,” added Deila. “Anyway, the young players can deal with more physically that the older players.
“A player at 70 per cent because of lack of energy is not better than the guy who is behind him on 100 per cent. That’s why we have a big squad here. We are going to be in Europe anyway now, whether it’s Champions League or Europa League.
“Until Christmas, we’re going to have only one week when we are only playing one game. That’s different for me as a manager. You can’t train the team the same way you have done before. You have to do things more with meetings and individual conversations and do it during matches.”
Deila was a weary but contented figure yesterday after Celtic returned home from Maribor at around 3:30am.
“I didn’t really sleep, but I woke up with a better feeling than I did after losing 4-1 in Warsaw,” he said with a smile. “But it’s just the first half of the tie. It’s nothing to celebrate yet. I am satisfied with the performance. We came back with a good result and we deserved it.
“To deal with success or good performances is almost the worst thing because it is easy to relax a little bit, but it is important now to concentrate on Inverness.
“As I said to the players, we now have to do everything right in six days. Two matches. We need a whole squad. We need to use this day to recover and tomorrow we train and really go 100 per cent into the game against Inverness.
“There will be some changes for the game, yes. That’s why we have a big squad and I will use it.”