YESTERDAY may have marked four months until Christmas, but, for Ronny Deila, the festive season will kick off tonight if he can guide Celtic into the Champions League group stage.
The 38-year-old Norwegian stands on the verge of qualifying for the tournament proper at the first attempt as a remarkable qualifying campaign, which saw Celtic reprieved after a 6-1 aggregate defeat to Legia Warsaw, reaches its conclusion.
Before the second leg of the play-off round against Maribor, with the teams level at 1-1 following the first leg in Slovenia last Wednesday, Deila is eagerly anticipating what he makes no attempt to disguise will be the most significant match of his first season as Celtic manager.
“If we can do it, it will be Christmas Day and ‘Happy New Year’ at the same time,” smiled Deila. “It would be fantastic. It’s my dream to do it, to coach a team in the biggest tournament in club football.
“I am getting goosebumps whenever I think of it. Of course, it is the most important night of this season. The biggest game of the season. I can’t wait for it.
“It has been ten long weeks of hard work since I took the job in June. There have been ups and downs, but now we are here at the final moment. It is the moment of decision and we have to go out and attack the game.”
One of the downs Deila was referring to was the comprehensive defeat suffered against Legia in the third qualifying round.
Although it was subsequently wiped out by the administrative blunder by the Polish champions which saw them field a suspended player as a late substitute in the second leg at Murrayfield, if Celtic do go on to take their place among Europe’s elite clubs for a third successive season, Deila insists the circumstances of their progress will not diminish the sense of achievement.
“I’ll say it again – Legia were a better team than us,” added Deila. “But things happened and now we have an opportunity against Maribor.
“If we go through, we will have shown we belong in the Champions League. If we don’t beat Maribor, we say: ‘Okay, we’re not good enough’.
“If we can qualify, it wouldn’t mean any less to us because of what happened with Legia Warsaw.
“As I have said before, it was out of our hands. We got another opportunity to prove we are good enough. I don’t know if we would beat Legia if we played them again now. They are a good team. But I don’t think it would be 6-1, it would be much closer.”
The implications of success tonight, both in terms of finance and prestige for Celtic, prompted Deila to make ten changes to his starting line-up for Saturday’s Premiership fixture in Inverness. Despite the 1-0 defeat his team suffered, he has no doubts it was the right course of action.
“I had no other choice but to do what we did,” he said.
“This game against Maribor is huge, there were only six days between the first and second legs and we had a lot of injuries in the squad. If we had got more injuries, we would have had more trouble. So I don’t regret anything about what we did on Saturday. It was an equal game, we lost it, and of course that is painful but, again, we got good answers about the squad I have and young players got experience as well.
“There are no more injuries than we had before, so that is positive. But, of course, we have important players who have been out for a while and that’s why we didn’t take any chances on Saturday.
“Never again will I make so many changes to the team. It was only because it was three games in six days, it will not happen again. There will maybe be seven or eight the next time we have a European game and that means one more day of resting. It was too much risk this week. It won’t happen again in that way but of course we will rotate a little bit this season.”