Chris Sutton, one of the luminaries in the Celtic team which reached the final of the then Uefa Cup under O’Neill’s management 11 years ago, had urged Deila to place his Europa League campaign at the top of his agenda, even if it means dropped points in the Scottish Premiership.
Ahead of tonight’s Group D opener against top seeds Red Bull Salzburg in Austria, Deila duly stressed his commitment to guiding Celtic as far as possible in the tournament following their disappointing elimination from the Champions League. “I am very aware of Celtic’s Uefa Cup run in 2003,” said Deila. “That would be a dream if we could to that this season.
“I remember it well, I was really into my football even then and watched all the games on TV as Celtic reached the final. I was playing for Odd Grenland in Norway and was also in charge of the youth team at the time.
“I wouldn’t say I was studying to be a manager at that point, I was more like a supporter. I remember Martin O’Neill’s team was fantastic. That’s the dream, to get a Celtic team to compete on that stage again.
“Of course it is going to be hard, but everything is possible. The Uefa Cup was good for Celtic then and it could be good for us again because it helps players gain more European experience. It was the same for Atletico Madrid when the won the Europa League recently and are now a strong Champions League team.
“So we want to compete in this competition and use these experiences to get better. I will not go into the Europa League and put out weakened teams. I know some English teams do that, but it’s different for them because the Premier League is much more important for them.
“Their league matches are a very high level. It is a good level in Scotland as well but it’s not the same level. In the English Premier League, the level is higher than the Europa League so it’s quite different.
“So we are going to put out good teams in the league and good teams in the Europa League. But the league is not more important that the Europa League.
“For me this is about building up a team who can fight harder in the Champions League next season. It’s about improving throughout this season, so these matches are so important.”
Celtic will have captain Scott Brown on European duty for the first time this season with the influential midfielder having made his comeback from injury in Saturday’s 2-1 league win over Aberdeen. He lasted just over an hour and Deila is hopeful he can perform a key role tonight.
“It will be five days since he played on Saturday, so we’ll see how he is,” said Deila.
“I think we have a good plan for Scott. Everybody saw on Saturday how vital he is. He’s not fully fit yet but he is a leader.
“We missed him in some of our earlier matches when things were not going the right way. You need players to turn it around and demand the right things. He is unbelievably important for the team.
“You can see the other players getting a lift from having him back. They feel safe with him on the pitch. He speaks and communicates all the time. He leads from the front and the others follow.
“When we get that from him for 90 minutes again, it will be very interesting to see how good he can be.”
Deila is hoping for a similar level of performance from his team to the one which saw them earn a 1-1 draw away to Maribor in the first leg of their Champions League play-off round tie last month.
“It’s a little different now that it’s a group instead of a knockout tie,” he said. “We have to defend well and take our chances when we get them. We did that in a good way in Maribor. It’s hard to say if this will be the toughest match in the group. All these teams are not so well known to everybody but are good teams in their countries. It is important to get points from away games. At home, it is important to be strong but if you can get something away as well, you have a very good chance to get through.”