Collins explains how Celtic are learning to stay ‘compact’ in order to reach Champions League
Malmo manager Age Hareide sought to impress upon Swedish journalists in May just what a super job he was doing with a club he had led to a defence of their title and the Champions League group stages across the previous year. Malmo, he said, were out-punching the big hitters in similar-sized northern European leagues. “We are better than Celtic, better than Rosenborg,” said the 61-year-old former Norwegian national manager. “FC Molde might come close to us, but nevertheless we are better. We are better than FC Copenhagen.”
Judging from Celtic’s displays in Europe last season, Hareide’s assessment would be difficult to dispute. Judging by the obduracy and organisational adeptness shown by the Scottish champions in Baku on Wednesday to win through to a Champions League play-off meeting with Malmo, however, Hareide’s ratings may be old hat.
Granted, Qarabag seemed to see goalscoring as beneath them in failing ever to really look like finding the net across the two legs against Celtic. It is not a mere coincidence they have scored one goal in their past six European outings in their Azerbaijan homeland. Yet, with Celtic shipping goals at an alarming rate in cross-border competition last season (21 conceded in 14 outings), moving to within one tie of club football’s El Dorado by repelling a slick ball-playing side for an entire 180 minutes is a notable feat. There have been only a handful of times in the past decade that Celtic have achieved this.
Ronny Deila needed a calling card on the continent, and in midweek he supplied himself with one. There appeared a damaging idealism about his desire to dominate possession and be expansive in Europe during his first season in charge at Celtic. Yet, there was a pragmatism to how he approached each of the two legs against Qarabag. It suggested he has learned that, for all his vision is to out-play teams in swashbuckling fashion, finding the right way to win trumps endangering positive outcomes by stubbornly serving a puritanical streak. Especially when there is monumental pressure riding on you to reach the Champions League – the qualifying phase for which is where ultimately you will be judged.
Celtic assistant John Collins, pictured right, shares his manager’s desire to take teams apart with technical ability and tempo. Right now, though, the buzz term over how they are approaching their European mission is “staying compact”.
“Myself and Ronny, we’re both coaches who love to try and score goals,” Collins said. “We love to keep the ball, be expansive and open. But we’re realists at the same time. We’ve got to learn as well as the players. You learn from your mistakes. Last year we were too open but only because we were trying to be creative. It’s about getting the balance right so when we go forwards in certain situations there has to be cover. There can’t be holes, more so in the middle of the pitch.
“It is satisfying to see us play the way we did and not concede any goals but the most important thing is we don’t get carried away. It’s one small step and it’s about doing it every single match. Not thinking we’ve done it now and that’s us. The last two games have shown we are making improvements but there’s still a long way to go. But we’re looking more mature as a team. Less naïve is probably the word.
“We’ve been very compact. Over the two games there haven’t been any periods where you’ve looked at gaps. It hasn’t happened because we’ve been specifically working on it on the training pitch, getting wide players to tuck in and drop back. It uses up a lot of energy, but they’re working hard.
“We’re definitely ahead of where we were last year. That goes without saying. I’d like to think that would be so after 12 months on the training pitch. We learned a lot last year. We conceded too many goals in Europe by becoming detached and a wee bit open. If you become open and detached from each other against good players and good teams you’ll be punished.
“It’s something that doesn’t happen to us in Scotland – no disrespect to the other Scottish teams, but they’re not clever enough players or quick enough thinkers to punish us when we do become detached from one another. We have to really focus on that when we go into European nights so that we stay compact and making sure… we want to attack, we want to open up and be expansive when we’ve got the ball but as soon as it breaks down it’s an instant sprint back into our shape and dropping back so there’s no gaps for opponents to play through us.”
Collins didn’t feel able to offer an assessment of Malmo this week but insists there will be no gaps in the Celtic coaches’ and players’ knowledge by the time the Swedes arrive in Glasgow for the first leg of the play-off a week on Wednesday. Naturally, though, he accepts that Malmo’s impressive form in ousting Salzburg from the Champions League qualifiers in the past two seasons – and, as with Wednesday night, courtesy of a 3-0 home win – is a red flag for a Celtic side that looked a level below the Austrians in the Europa League last season.
Naturally, too, Celtic have one player who knows a little more about Malmo than his team-mates in the form of Swedish international Mikael Lustig. “It’s a tough draw. Of the five teams we could have got, they are one of the best,” he said. “If we want to see ourselves as a Champions League team this is the type of game we need to win.
“I played with [Markus] Rosenberg in the national team and also Rasmus Bengtsson, the centre-half. They have a new goalkeeper, too, so there’s a few I know from the national team. Both Rosenberg and the new striker [Nikola] Durdic, on loan from Augsburg, will be a threat. He is a really good player. I’ve played against him in Norway and he was also in the Helsingborg team [we beat in 2012].’”
Durdic, who scored twice against Salzburg, will have the scoring onus on his shoulders with Rosenborg suspended for the first leg. Had the fates decreed, he could have been entrusted with those responsibilities at Celtic, Lustig revealed. “We faced him when he was at Greuther Furth and we played them at a training camp, a couple of years ago. I think Celtic were quite keen on him but then he got injured.”
Lustig doesn’t read too much into the fact that Malmo only lie sixth around the halfway point of their summer league with their Champions League participation last winter having made them vulnerable to predators. The tie will be “special” for the Celtic full-back in taking him home, and also special for Jo Inge Berget, who this time last year was enduring an unproductive loan spell from Cardiff City under countryman Deila.
“He will want to play a great game and show all the Celtic fans, players and staff that he could have been good here,” Lustig said. “But it’s a special game for everyone – it’s a play-off to get in the Champions League. I don’t know why it didn’t work out for him. I’d like to think it’s because we have a good squad. There is a battle for each position and maybe the other guy did better. Maybe he could be more dangerous in this tie. When the game starts you don’t think about that so much, maybe it’s more in the build-up. Some players don’t work at a certain club then they go away and become a star. I’ve seen it many times.”