IF THE Europa League was a horse race, it would not be in the Group 1 bracket. But if you are seeking a thoroughbred competitor in Uefa’s secondary club tournament this season, Red Bull Salzburg may just fit the bill.
The Austrian champions tonight stand in Celtic’s way as Ronny Deila’s team attempt to secure their passage to the last 32 of the tournament.
Salzburg have already qualified in impressive fashion, racking up 13 goals in their first four games to stand as the top scorers in the group stage so far. They are unbeaten in their past eight away Europa League fixtures, winning seven of them, and are regarded by some as dark horses to reach the final in Warsaw next May.
Before Deila and his players can entertain any similar ambitions, they have to get over the finishing line in Group D. Victory this evening at Celtic Park would not only confirm their place in the knockout phase next February, it would also take them to the top of the section.
That is a place worth pursuing, given that the group winners will be seeded in the last 32 draw and less likely to face one of the teams dropping out of the Champions League. It is a prize Deila intends Celtic to be playing for when they face Dinamo Zagreb in their final group game in Croatia on 11 December.
“The target is to finish top of the group,” said Deila. “We want that, so we have to win this game against Salzburg. If we do that, we will be in a good position. So you can say this game is big.”
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His assistant John Collins expressed the view that Celtic will need their best performance of the season so far to defeat Salzburg and Deila shares his high regard for the standard of opposition they face tonight.
“They are a very good team and the energy and intensity of the game will be high,” added Deila. “Salzburg press high up the pitch for 90 minutes, so we need to cope with that intensity, but we know we are going to get chances and we need to use them when they are so attacking and offensive.
“It’s hard to say Salzburg are a Champions League standard team, because like us they didn’t make it through the qualifiers this season. But again, it was small details and they are at a high level. You could say they are Champions League level. Their level is certainly quite equal with Maribor and Legia Warsaw, who we played in the Champions League qualifiers. Maybe with Legia, they are the best team we have faced so far in my time as manager. We need to step up because it is going to be a tough test.”
Celtic earned a 2-2 draw in Salzburg on matchday one in September, one of several European games under Deila when they have opened the scoring but been unable to close out a victory.
“We are going to go out hard and try to get the first goal as we have done in many games in Europe this year,” he said. “But we also have to be disciplined and aware for 90 minutes because possession will switch a lot and you need to be good in transitional play against Salzburg. We have a plan for that.”
With a Scottish Cup tie against Hearts at Tynecastle to follow on Sunday, it is a significant few days for Celtic who can ensure their continuing interest in all three domestic competitions and the Europa League beyond the turn of the year.
“It gives something extra and special to the season,” said Deila. “If we win these two games, then we are in everything when we come to the spring and there will be a lot of exciting games.
“It’s positive to go through in Europe and it also makes it easier to get new players in January. We want to build a team which is progressing. That is the target. We are going to add to the squad. It has to be the right players. It could be four, it could be two.
“We want to go through in everything and the Europa League gives unbelievable experience to us. It would be fantastic for the players and the fans and would be huge for me.”
After an unconvincing start to his tenure, Deila has begun to endear himself to most of the Celtic support in the past few weeks. He admits the 2-1 victory over Aberdeen at Pittodrie two weeks ago, after which he put on a rare show of emotion when celebrating in front of the travelling fans, was a turning point.
“Passion is important, but you have to think right,” said Deila. “If you have too much emotion, you can’t think properly. But after the game at Aberdeen, it was time to let emotions out. It’s important to show you really want something and I think the more time you get, the more you can give and be more me.
“It’s a part of me I’ve shown before and would be nothing new for the people of Norway. They have seen it sometimes. I wasn’t trying to show less emotion when I arrived. But when everything is clear and you know where you are going with everything, it is easier to put in the energy the way you want.
“Of course I had to earn the trust of the fans here. If I’d come to Celtic from Borussia Dortmund or somewhere like that, it would have been different. But I came here from Norway. So I have to show I can do it at this level. I know I am capable of doing it.”
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