IT WOULD have once all seemed so alluring to Ronny Deila. A European away game with his team boasting 64 per cent possession and camped in their opponents’ half. Play being criss-crossed from side-to-side as the full-backs bombed on and the defence kept a high line. What’s not to like? Well, judging by the debacle in losing 3-1 against a capable counter-attacking Molde the other night, everything.
Celtic are now without a win in their past eight Europa League encounters. The have only one victory in their past six European outings in all competitions. Singular failures are being seized upon for a slump that is shrinking their stature. This is serving to disguise the fact that the shortcomings are systemic.
Deila talked the other day about striking the right balance between attack and defence. He has had 20 continental encounters to figure that out. He talked about the need to reconfigure his backline constantly after the loss of central paring Virgil van Dijk and Jason Denayer and injury problems.
Yet with that departed pair Celtic were just as leaky in heading towards the 35 total for goals conceded in Europe under the current manager. The major difference between last season’s Europa League campaign and this one is that Craig Gordon has not been able to produce the saves to spare his team.
Deila talked about a pattern to the mistakes. Yes, and that does not begin and end with Efe Ambrose, Emilio Izaguirre, Dedryck Boyata et al. It is a curious twist that Celtic with the ball are now more vulnerable to losing goals than they were without it during the best of the Neil Lennon and Gordon Strachan eras. Famously, in the nicked win over Barcelona in 2012, their Catalan opponents had close on 75 per cent possession. You won’t win very many games when opponents boast stats like that but that night defensive discipline provided the cornerstone for the improbable. And who were two members of a faultless back four? The supposedly inveterate error-committers Ambrose and Izaguirre.
Deila, a thoroughly decent man, looked more than a little wounded when it was put to him on Friday that his standing among the Celtic support appeared in danger of plummeting to the base level of the shambolic Champions League qualifiers against Legia Warsaw 16 months ago. Like his team on finding themselves two goals down early on in Norway on Thursday, his response was limp.
“To get into the Champions League and play in Europe is something everybody wants and that is what we are working to achieve,” he said. “We are now in the Europa League and we will do everything we can to qualify. But I understand there are high expectations and people are disappointed at the result because the performance was not good enough.
“I think also we had two good performances against Ajax and Fenerbahce [in the opening drawn Group A games]. It is very hard in Europe and you have to acknowledge your mistakes. We have to keep on working because the goal is to get through and to qualify for the Champions League next time.”
The more immediate goals are ensuring that Molde monstering and the sideshow provided by Kris Commons’ public petulance on being substituted are not given mileage by domestic duties. Suddenly, the visit of Dundee United in the Premiership today, the midweek League Cup quarter-final away to Hearts and the hosting of Aberdeen next Saturday looks like a testing triple-header before Molde come to Glasgow.
Commons’ lights, camera, action insubordination, for which he has apologised was, Deila maintained, no sign of a general disquiet in the dressing room with the methods of the Norwegian and assistants John Collins and John Kennedy.
“A country without conflicts or confrontation is a dead environment. It’s like they don’t care, and that’s the worst thing,” he said. “People have opinions and people want to get better but the most important thing is they show them in a good way, that they mean well to each other. We want to add something to the group to make us better, not to hurt someone. I’m not afraid of conflicts or confrontations but we have to do it in the right places.”
Celtic could yet salvage qualification from a group they are propping up with two points – the same mark as Ajax, two behind Fenerbahce and five behind Molde. To finish in the top two would probably require them to beat the Norwegians and Frank de Boer’s side in their forthcoming home games and take a point from their final-game trip to Turkey. But Celtic have never taken seven points from a possible nine in the group stages of a European group.
Deila should have an opportunity to find the elusive European formula in next year’s Champions League qualifiers – whatever the noises off at present. The problem is that there is no progress being made towards returning the club to the land of milk and honey. The serious dough paid for Croatian centre-back Jozo Simunovic may help, assuming the 21-year-old £4.5 million capture delivers on his promise when fit. A couple of other signings might also have a positive influence by then, though Deila has profoundly struggled to recruit such personnel.
In recent days there has been much wistfulness from the Celtic faithful about how life was under Lennon in continental assignments. As much as damning Deila, that could also offer him some encouragement. Lennon did not fall short in back-to-back Champions League qualifying campaigns – no Celtic manager but the Norwegian has – but that was probably only because he only had access to the Europa League qualifiers in his second summer.
Lennon’s team flunked a tie with Sion but were given passage to the group stages as a consequence of the Swiss side playing ineligible players. In a Europa League section of comparable difficulty to the one in which they are currently toiling, they claimed only one win from their six games. Inside a year, they had progressed to the last 16 of the Champions League.
History has an infinitesimal chance of repeating itself but Celtic supporters aren’t asking Deila to upset such unenviable odds. They are simply asking him to make good on the advantages stacked in his favour and demonstrate discipline and drive against opponents with a fraction of Celtic’s resources. Like Molde. Like Malmo. Like Maribor. Too often with his team in Europe, it seem to be a case of Deila M for murderous outcomes.