Mid-term report: Contrasting fortunes for Celtic

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Ronny Deila’s side have dominated the domestic scene, but struggled mightily on the European stage, writes Andrew Smith

Attack

Celtic have relied heavily on Leigh Griffiths. Picture: David Lamb

Celtic have relied heavily on Leigh Griffiths. Picture: David Lamb

The natter from Ronny Deila is forever about making Celtic a more expansive, “offensive” team. In spells this season, the Scottish champions have produced real forward flair to demolish domestic opponents in thrilling fashion. And despite their shortcomings in Europe, goalscoring has rarely been the issue.

However, it is the form and finesse of Leigh Griffiths that holds everything together for Celtic in the final third. Summer signing Nadir Ciftci’s impact could be described as nada, and there really is no other reliable goals sources outside of Kris Commons and Griffiths.

The 4-2-3-1 system can sometimes seem to create a little disconnect between attacking intent and delivery but other Scottish teams cannot live with Celtic’s enterprise.

Defence

Celtic at the back, reminds of the Bruce Springsteen song about there being 57 TV channels but nothing on.

Deila has fielded 18 different defences but none of them has seemed on the money in the club’s post-Virgil van Dijk world. Whatever the unwarranted hounding of John Collins for suggesting as much, few teams are able to punish Celtic for mistakes on a grand scale - as have Malmo, Molde, Fenerbahce and Ajax in Europe in recent months.

The manner in which van Dijk has slotted straight in at a high level of the English Premiership demonstrates the huge gap his £13m sale left. Celtic are vulnerable from crosses, set-pieces, and quick breaks as they simply weren’t with the Dutchman.

The injury disrupted start to his Celtic career endured by £4.5m buy Jozo Simunovic hasn’t help Deila’s case. Neither, however, has the inability of such as Efe Ambrose and Dedryck Boyata to offer any real degree of assurance or command.

Star player

It is a curiosity that so many of Celtic’s big players from last season have struggled for form at the same time. Scott Brown and Stefan Johansen have been pale imitations of their last season selves. Kris Commons hasn’t proved as influential, hampered by niggles just like Stuart Armstrong.

As a result, Leigh Griffiths stands head and shoulder above all his team-mates for his contribution to his team’s cause. To fixate on his total of 18 goals in 25 games doesn’t do justice to his efforts. Some of his match-changing contributions have been Henrik Larsson-esque and he has proved himself on the European stage with four goals in his past nine continental outings.

Manager

Ronny Deila has taken a pounding for the failure of his team in Europe. Some of the flak directed his way has been over the top. Whatever the froth over his future, his position is not under threat when he could yet claim a domestic treble,

Yet, the financial differentials in Scotland that allow side lord it over all others in budget terms mean his work only comes under proper scrutiny in the European domain. The inability to reach the Champions League for a second summer, coupled by the recent home and away defeat to Molde that leave the club little prospect of making it beyond the Europa League group stage, has left supporters seriously doubting the Norwegian’s ability to deliver their team to the continental stage they demand.

He has one more crack at that, but must - as he has readily acknowledged - find the right balance between attack and defence in Europe if he is to enjoy the longevity in post he seeks.

Must do better

In defence, defence and, eh, defence. It really doesn’t say much for the competition in Scotland that Celtic have suffered so few bumps across their domestic duties when they have such a porcelain and porous backline. Improvement in that area must be achieved immediately by Deila if they are to retain any interest in the Europa League.

A must win game at home to Ajax comes around next Thursday...which, if negotiated, would then beget a must-win encounter in Istanbul against Fenerbahce.

On a nine-game winless run in the Europa League because of their defensive deficiencies, the idea that they could suddenly win back-to-back games in the tournament seems fanciful. It would take defensive performers a country mile better than what they have been able to muster in recent months,

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