CELTIC boss Ronny Deila is confident that his side will not be caught cold when they face Icelandic opposition in his first competitive fixture as manager.
The Norwegian coach welcomed yesterday’s Champions League second qualifying round draw, which paired his new club with KR Reykjavik. Celtic were drawn to be at home in the first leg on 15 or 16 July, but negotiations requested by KR look likely to see a switch.
Although the Icelandic champions are well into their domestic season, Deila has no concerns over Celtic’s readiness for the tie, which will see them play the home leg at Murrayfield due to their own stadium’s Commonwealth Games involvement.
Celtic will play four pre-season games in Austria before the first leg and while Deila is respectful of rising standards in Icelandic football in recent years – their national team ended his home country’s most recent World Cup qualifying campaign – he insists the Scottish champions will be too strong for KR.
“It could be better and it could be worse,” said Deila, after Celtic avoided a more daunting assignment against Swedish champions Malmo, who were also in their section of the draw.
“KR are in the middle of their season so we have to be very prepared ahead of the game.
“Icelandic football has improved a lot in the last few years. They are hard-working players with a good team spirit. They will be well organised too. But we are Celtic. We should be a better team over two matches.
“It’s unbelievable what Iceland has achieved in football. They beat Norway 2-0 in the World Cup, which I wasn’t happy about! They have a good attitude and good success with developing young players. But most of their best players go abroad when they are very young, so the standard of their domestic league is much lower.
“For us, it’s all about doing everything right in pre-season, to get the squad physically and mentally prepared.. KR are more fit right now but nearly every player in our squad is an international.
“We will try to do everything right to build up the physical shape of the players as quickly as possible without getting injuries. Then we will be very focused on this tie.”
Deila will renew an old rivalry when he crosses swords with KR’s coach Runar Kristinsson. Capped a record 106 times for Iceland, Kristinsson played in Norway for three years with Lillestrom when Deila was on the books of Odd Grenland.
“I played against him many times, he was a very good player,” said Deila. “He was a central midfielder and went on to Belgium afterwards. He was a big star with Lillestrom.”
KR, who play at the 3,000 capacity KR-vollur Stadium, are Iceland’s most successful club, taking their 26th title last season. They are currently fourth in the table, three points off the top.
Gary Martin, a 23-year-old English striker who started his career at Middlesbrough, was their top scorer last season. They also have a familiar face to Celtic in 27-year-old forward Kjartan Finnbogason, who was at the club for three years under Gordon Strachan but failed to break into the first team.
KR lost 6-2 on aggregate to Standard Liege in the second qualifying round of the Europa League last season and their previous Champions League foray saw them crushed 9-1 by HJK Helsinki in 2012-13, with the Finns losing 4-1 on aggregate to Celtic in the next round.
It will be KR’s third tie against Scottish opponents, having lost 14-1 on aggregate to Aberdeen in the first round of the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1967-68 and then 2-1 to Kilmarnock in the Uefa Cup qualifying round in 1999-2000.
“We will try to enjoy these games and we aim to get good results,” said KR coach Kristinsson. “Either you want a team you could beat, or Real Madrid. Celtic will be an adventure but this will be very difficult.”
It will be the first of three ties Deila must negotiate if he is to match Neil Lennon’s success in leading Celtic to the group stage of the Champions League. He is unfazed by any potential disadvantage over having to play at the home of Scottish rugby.
“Murrayfield will be something different,” added Deila. “It’s a big stadium, the pitch is going to be good – you have to look at it in a positive way.
“It is still our home game and we will have a lot of fans there. I think we will do well.”
Yesterday’s Europa League draws also provide cause for cautious optimism among Scottish clubs. Aberdeen will face Latvian side Daugava Riga, making their European debut, in the first qualifying round. The first leg is at Pittodrie on 3 July.
Although Aberdeen fans still shudder at the memory of their embarrassing away goals defeat to Skonto Riga in the Uefa Cup qualifying round of 1994-95, Daugava are currently struggling in seventh place in the Latvian league, a massive 23 points behind leaders Skonto.
If Aberdeen win, they will face a stiffer test in the second qualifying round against Dutch side FC Groningen.
Scottish Cup winners St Johnstone head to Switzerland in the second qualifying round to face FC Luzern, who finished fourth in the Swiss Super League last season. Since then, however, they have lost top scorer Dimitar Rangelov, the Bulgarian former Borussia Dortmund striker.
Motherwell await the winners of the first qualifying round tie between Bangor City of Wales and Icelandic Cup runners-up Stjarnan, in their European debut. The first leg is at home on 17 July.