Celtic coach must steer club into Champions League group stages to be deemed a success
That Malmo is a moment of truth for Ronny Deila, his team and his club wasn’t something the Celtic manager was in a rush to dwell on last week. Yet, perceptions of Deila’s 14-month tenure will pivot entirely on whether he can push his players to produce a performance in the Swedbank Stadion on Tuesday that propels them into the Champions League group stages.
There is good reason to suspect that second-leg success in the play-off lies firmly within Celtic’s grasp. Equally there are reasons to fear it could elude them. Such a balance of possibilities says much about where Celtic are as a team right now. It also tells where they are in the tie courtesy of conceding a 95th-minute goal that forced them to settle for a 3-2 win at the conclusion of a caper full of sound and fury at Celtic Park in midweek. An outcome that can be polished as easily as it can be dulled. “We’ve got one foot in the group stage but we know there is so much to do,” said Celtic winger Gary Mackay-Steven. “We are quietly confident.”
Mackay-Steven took with “a pinch of salt” Malmo coach Age Hareide’s claim that his team’s closing seconds demonstrated that Celtic did not have the fitness levels to be a 90-minute team. A bucket of salt could be applied to keeper Johan Wiland’s reference to Deila’s team as “pigs”... which he later sought to explain only meant they were “dirty”. Rightly, there has been no enthusiasm in the Celtic camp for adding further flavouring to an already seriously spicy second leg. The occasion is draining enough, Deila acknowledged. Though not in the manner that Hareide would seek to cite as a weakness of the Scottish champions.
The Celtic manager was moved to reflect on how Celtic’s striving for Champions League status has become an obsession. It becomes “the whole life” of the club and those around it. “Everyone and the Scottish press is talking about the Champions League the whole year,” Deila said. “Every player every day will get that sucked into their heads so they know how important that game is. Of course, it becomes mental when you are waiting for that game. It is tiring. If you are an athlete and tired in your head then your legs will be tired as well. This is something we have to handle in a good way.”
The inability to see beyond the Champions League can be wearying. The reality is that it doesn’t guarantee “great nights” at Celtic Park. The club’s Europa League campaign harvested more co-efficient points and – thanks to the last 32 3-3 draw with Internazionale – a more memorable piece of theatre than Neil Lennon’s second Champions League group campaign. Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax may have visited then, but across those three encounters Celtic produced one goal from open play – and that resulted from a wicked deflection.
The inability to see beyond the Champions League can be wearying
Deila said this week that, with only a couple of 90-minute defeats across the entity of 2015 – and a solitary reverse with 11 men on the pitch – Celtic are in “a good place”. Yet, with their financial infrastructure guaranteeing domestic dominance, the only place the club’s supporters consider to be a good one is the group stages of the Champions League. Meanwhile, Deila truly will only be considered a good manager if he follows all his title-winning predecessors of this era by unlocking the playing and monetary riches of the competition in his second season.
In that pursuit, Celtic did plenty right the other evening. They were exhilarating in establishing a two-goal lead after 10 minutes, and always looked to have a goal in them even after their self-belief was savagely dented by Jo Inge Berget’s first strike of the night just after the break. The Celtic loanee of last year’s sobering second goal meant Celtic only won with a little to spare when they might have won with a lot to spare. This need not be fatal, though the direct Swedish champions do appear to scale great heights when fizzed into life by their fanatical followers in their own fantastic environment.
Berget’s second goal has been picked apart as evidence of all sorts of frailties: concentration, craft... heck, even cardiovascular capabilities. Yet, the fact Berget was able to batter the ball in because Virgil van Dijk bashed into Nir Bitton as a corner arced into the area might suggest a more straightforward explanation.
“I think it was very unlucky. It was two players going in for the same challenge,” Deila said. “We have been strong at set plays for the last year and last season we were 25-2 at set plays. I can’t remember the last time we conceded a goal from a set play, so that was disappointing to lose that goal.”
The greater disappointment was Celtic losing their mojo after mastering Malmo early on, but the Celtic manager rejects out of hand that may be because he has asked his players to play to a tempo impossible to maintain for 90 minutes – as Kris Commons ventured last season.
“You have to have the ball more [to play that way for 90 minutes],” Deila said. “Sometimes you have to rest with the ball. That is the next stage for us to play the game and control the game more with the ball.
“We did that well in the first half but in the second half, we lost the ball too much. And then it is going to be tiring. We have to cope with another situation but we are getting there and we are totally different from one year ago.
“I remember Maribor having the ball [in the Champions League play-off last August], sitting back and we tried to play on the counter attack but we didn’t have a finish on goal. We are getting there but it is about getting results.”
Celtic must be brave, smart and strong in Malmo in Tuesday. In such as the revitalised James Forrest, the bang-on-form goal plunderer Leigh Griffiths, captain Scott Brown, keeper Craig Gordon and van Dijk they have the central performers to come through – just as they did with the clean sheet away to Qarabag in the last round. Not that Deila believes the Azerbaijan aesthetes are comparable to a marauding Malmo.
“It is different the way they play, so it is important that we create chances and cause them problems,” he said. “I have always said a good defence leads to a good offence. Not the other way round. You have to protect yourself, be very compact and exploit them when they are unbalanced.”
Celtic need a result on Tuesday for the very eco-balance of the club and their manager.