“We haven’t lost many games in my career at Celtic,” said Ronny Deila as he reflected on the present bout of turbulence his managerial tenure at the Scottish champions is encountering. “I don’t think I have ever lost two games in a row.”
Deila could perhaps be excused for blotting the back-to-back defeats he in fact did suffer at the start of last season, away to Inverness and then more damagingly at home to Maribor in the Champions League play-off round, from his mind.
As he bids to avoid following up Saturday’s 2-1 loss at Aberdeen with another defeat against Ajax in the Amsterdam Arena tonight, there is no room for confusion in Deila’s thoughts.
He is clear on the targets he must achieve if his second season in charge of Celtic is to be regarded as both successful and having provided evidence of progress.
Following a second successive failure to reach the Champions League, a successful Europa League campaign is one imperative for Deila. With Celtic and Ajax joined in Group A by Turkish League leaders Fenerbahce and Norwegian side Molde, it appears to present a more difficult challenge than the section Deila and his players negotiated last year when they faced Red Bull Salzburg, Dinamo Zagreb and Astra Giurgiu.
For the Celtic boss, however, it represents an opportunity to answer the latest questions being asked of his credibility in the job.
“You don’t go through a career without setbacks,” said Deila. “No road is going straight to heaven. Everyone loses games, you just have to deal with it.
“We had a bad performance on Saturday, we know. All the players are disappointed, I’m disappointed but you have to move on. All teams lose games.
“If you look back on the history of Celtic, you will see that. It seems like they won all their matches for the last 50 years. But please go back – please go back and check!
“In the last six years, Celtic have won only three games away from home in Europe out of 25. I’m not talking about Reykjavik and Stjarnan, because they are games you have to win.
“Out of 25 games since 2009, you have won three away from home. Now you are talking about a team who are going to win everything. That is just not true. Ninety per cent of Celtic fans understand – they know the history. They are thinking the right thing.
“So it’s about winners. It’s not about finding excuses. Thursday night will be a very hard game. But with hard work and the skills we have, we can definitely get a result. If we get a point in Amsterdam, it will be a very good start to the Europa League.
“I feel pressure all the time. I really want to get through in the Europa League and do better than last year when we reached the last 32.
“To be fair, we went through the Champions League qualifiers last year with three defeats and a draw. This time, we have lost just one game in the qualifiers. Last year, we didn’t deserve to be in the Europa League. This time, we deserve to be there.
“So it’s not an excuse, but things are going in the right way. We are in a very tough group but if we can get through, it will be a very good achievement.
“It’s hard to say if this is the toughest period of my career. You always face tough times in football. You get disappointed but you have to move on.
“It’s the same for the players. We have to learn from things. That’s the fantastic thing at Celtic – you only wait a few days and another big game comes up.”
Asked to assess just what has gone wrong for his team in recent weeks, Deila suggested the solution lies in simply going back to basics. That is especially true of a defensive unit which has become all too familiar to the cheap concession of goals from set-pieces.
“No-one has outplayed us this season,” insisted Deila. “No-one has come close to outplaying us. We have done stupid things tactically as a team in terms of organisation and also individually.
“It is about confidence and clear messages from me so the players understand. We are very clear in the match plan. If we execute the match plan in a good way, we will get confidence and produce good performances.
“It doesn’t start with ten per cent creativity winning a game, it starts with 90 per cent hard work. We have been through hard periods before but we are going to fight for trophies this year. We are going to win the league and hopefully other trophies as well.
“Just three weeks ago, we played fantastic in the first leg of the Champions League tie against Malmo. The first half hour was unbelievable. We know we have a good team and that we can play fantastic football.
“But lately we haven’t been at our best level. It’s all about confidence, getting some good experiences and getting back on track. First of all, it’s about getting back to hard work and doing the simple things. Then the confidence will return.”
Deila is dismissive of suggestions a lack of dressing-room harmony is a factor in Celtic’s present problems, although he did confirm harsh words have been exchanged between his players.
“Talk that there is unrest is nonsense,” added Deila. “If you go to a dressing room in one of the 20 biggest clubs in Europe, you will find more nationalities than you find players.
“Here, half of our group is Scottish or British. There is a very good atmosphere, they are having fun together.
“But everybody hates losing. If you don’t have any conflicts or disagreements, then you have no culture in the dressing room. With no culture, you face problems and take it out on each other.
“I would be much more worried if there were no conflicts in the group, because then you don’t care when you lose.
“You have to hate losing. Look at Scott Brown. I can assure you that if the fans are having a bad time when we are losing, he is ten times worse.
“Everyone in this group are winners, they all hate losing. We are used to winning and we are going to get back on track, That’s how it is. Now we are in a bad period but all of us need to work hard and gain belief as a team.”