The tidy, tiny stadium that will stage tonight’s Europa League Group D encounter played host to a crowd of only 1,000 at the weekend as Astra Giurgiu ended a five-game winless run. The city that has only housed the club for two years has no real football pedigree, with grain the major export of a location separated from Bulgaria by a slender stretch of the Danube. The Romanian outpost then would hardly seem a European setting for Celtic to feel big about themselves.
And yet, Deila will puff out his chest and inhale with deep satisfaction if results in Group D go his way this evening. There are potentially momentous elements to the encounter with Astra, which Uefa has listed as Celtic’s 300th game in European competition since their first outing in 1962.
A combination of Craig Gordon’s excellence and good fortune has allowed Celtic to enjoy a best ever showing across the opening half of a group campaign, with a seven-point haul from an available nine.
Deila can take pride in that, but such will only be truly meaningful if his team can prevail against Astra this evening, while Salzburg defeat Dinamo Zagreb. If those two outcomes ensue, and see Celtic and Salzburg guaranteed of progress to the last 32, a raft of notable firsts will be brought up. Celtic would become the first Scottish team to win in Romania after 11 previous failings for teams from this country. They would also become the first Scottish side to require only four games to qualify from a European group, and the only team to emerge successfully from a Europa League section.
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Deila has more personal reasons for willing his team to earn Celtic only a second away victory in a European group campaign in 32 attempts. The Norwegian earned his opportunity to take charge of the Scottish champions in the summer courtesy of the impressive feat of guiding unfashionable second tier Stromsgodset to the top flight title in his homeland. However, he has insisted that could be usurped this evening, as he seeks firmly to shake off the early season wobbles that threatened to derail his Celtic tenure.
“[If we could qualify against Astra] it would be the biggest achievement I’ve ever done,” the 39-year-old said. “It would be very big. I know what I did in Norway, but we are talking about Europe now. It is hard to compare but when so many big teams are coming into Europe it is so much bigger than to be a champion in Norway.”
Deila was entrusted as the keeper of the Celtic flame in Europe when he succeeded Neil Lennon, who had added to the club’s continental lore with a Barcelona win that helped secure progress to the last 16 of the Champions League in 2012. Deila crashed and burned in the qualifiers of club football’s most prestigious tournament and, after he did so, plenty were willing to predict dropping down to the Europa League would further plunge Celtic into a dark place.
A generous helping of breaks might have helped Deila avoid that fate, but that should not deny him his right to be a history maker. He certainly understands Celtic’s relationship with European competition, and what his relationship to that bond must be.
“It is very important for me to maintain this club’s tradition and history in Europe. I want to do well in this competition,” he said.
“There have been some of the club’s best nights in their history in European competition. It’s harder and harder for Celtic to do well in Europe because of the difference in finances with so many of the other clubs. We just have to work even harder to develop players and find the right ones elsewhere too and get them ready for this level.
“Games like these are so important in preparing our players for the future, get used to playing in Europe. I really hope we can achieve that [history-making win].”
Celtic have been far from impressive, or convincing, in their three sectional encounters so far, but they have ultimately dug out the required results. Their seven-point haul might flatter their efforts. Indeed, the 2-1 win at home to Astra a fortnight ago was described by Mikael Lustig as the product of a “crap” performance. His team-mate Virgil van Dijk, meanwhile, called it the team’s poorest display of a season in which there have been a raft of candidates.
Scott Brown is not caused any unease by the manner in which Celtic have edged their way into top spot in Group D because the captain has too often seen luck elude his side in the Champions League.
“It doesn’t matter how you play as long as you get the points,” he said. “Sometimes you can play really well and get beat. But at the end of the day the points are on the board, that’s the main thing.
“You’d take that – playing your worst game and winning – because I’ve been in those positions in Europe before where we’ve played unbelievably well yet lost.
“Everyone says you are a great team yet you’ve just been beaten 3-0. If you play rubbish and win the game, you are happy enough.
“AC Milan last year in the San Siro was an example. We played really well yet lost 2-0. You’d rather play well and win but three points is three points. It doesn’t matter how you play really.”
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