RATHER than hit the ground running in the manner hoped for by a club’s biggest summer signing, Stefan Scepovic has so far found himself bogged down in mediocrity.
No goals from his first six appearances is not the return Celtic would have anticipated from the only one of their seven recruits for whom they have paid a transfer fee under Ronny Deila’s management so far.
Such has been the difficulty Scepovic has found in adapting to life with the Scottish champions, he has been named in their starting line-up only twice and shown little to encourage belief among supporters that the £2.3 million paid to Sporting Gijon for his services will ultimately prove a sound investment.
The Serbian international striker has been completely outshone over the past few weeks by John Guidetti, one of Celtic’s five loan signings, who has scored four goals in his first six games for Deila’s team.
But with Guidetti ineligible for the group stage of the Europa League, tonight presents Scepovic with a fresh opportunity to display the ability with which he netted 23 times in the second tier of Spanish football last season and which persuaded Celtic to pursue him so vigorously at the close of the summer transfer window.
According to Deila, he has seen the evidence this week to convince him Scepovic is ready to make his mark against Astra Giurgiu as Celtic look to strengthen their position at the top of Group D.
“Stefan is very hungry to play and he wants to show himself,” said Deila. “He came on as a sub against Ross County on Saturday and he had a good chance there. You can see in his eyes that he wants to improve. He is a good player, I’ve seen him score some fantastic goals in training this week. I’m looking forward to seeing more from him on the pitch.”
Among the criticism aimed at Scepovic has been an observation that he lacks the physical presence to impose himself on opposition defences, prompting Deila to confirm recently that the player would be placed on an intensive gym programme to bulk him up.
“We don’t take any drugs, so that will take a bit more time!” added a relaxed Deila yesterday. “It will take maybe half a year to get him to the strength we want. But he is working all the time. It’s also about his mentality. Against Ross County he kept the defenders working, his touch was good and now he has to go on from there.”
After a laudable 2-2 draw away to top seeds Red Bull Salzburg on matchday one was followed up by a nervy and hard-earned 1-0 home win over Dinamo Zagreb three weeks ago, Celtic now have an opportunity to considerably enhance their prospects of reaching the post-Christmas knockout stage of the Europa League.
Romanian Cup holders Astra have won only one of their last eight games in all competitions and morale is reported to be low as new coach Oleg Protasov is the latest to try to satisfy the demands of wealthy but eccentric owner Ioan Niculae.
But although Astra are pointless at the bottom of Group D after their first two games, including a 5-1 thumping in Zagreb, Deila is wary of perceptions that Celtic should find it straightforward to secure maximum points against them both in Glasgow tonight and then in Romania in a fortnight.
“If Astra played in the Scottish Premiership, they would win it if we didn’t,” said Deila. “They would be among the top teams in Scotland. They are not a bad team. The richest man in Romania has them and I also played a friendly against them in January when I was manager of Stromsgodset and they have some quality players there.
“Of course, if you look at the group you see they don’t have any points yet and that is a sign they may be a little bit weaker than Salzburg and Zagreb, but those two teams are very good. It looks like a battle between three teams (for the two qualifying places) and Astra are one of the teams who we have to beat. If we do that, we are in a very good situation in the group.
“I hope people who assume it will be an easy win for us are right but I don’t think so. I think it will be a tough game. We have to prepare well. But I think in the last month things are happening for us and we are going in the right way. The players are starting to get confidence.
“I can see we are starting to get better relationships in the team, patterns in our attacking play and also better in transition defensively. I hope to show that again on Thursday night.”
Full-backs Mikael Lustig and Emilio Izaguirre are both fit to play, despite not completing 90 minutes at the weekend because of injuries, but Kris Commons remains doubtful with a muscle injury which could allow Stefan Johansen to retain the advanced midfield role he carried out impressively during the 5-0 win in Dingwall.
“We have different options now,” added Deila. “That’s good, it’s what I want, I don’t want to stick to one system. We want to look at an opponent and pick the right system against them.
“It’s important it’s not about systems, it’s about principles and the principles are getting the full-backs forwards, the wingers coming in, triangles on the sides, getting crosses, getting people into the box. I think you can see that more now and hopefully we can get even better now.”