CELTIC Park will host the Scottish Premiership’s biggest match of the season so far tomorrow, witnessed by one of the biggest attendances anywhere in British football this weekend.
But if the clash of champions Celtic and their closest title rivals Aberdeen has captured the imagination north of the border, it remains a relative footnote for the television executives who effectively control the profiling of the game in this country.
Ronny Deila, the Celtic manager, has accused Sky Sports of a lack of respect for Scottish football by decreeing tomorrow’s game kicks-off at 12 noon. It is the warm-up act for the English second tier meeting of Norwich City and Ipswich Town on the same channel which begins at 2:05pm.
For the still sponsor-less Scottish Professional Football League, it is simply another harsh reminder of how they have become the impoverished relations of their English neighbours.
While the SPFL earn around £12.5 million a year from their current TV deal with Sky and BT Sports, the Football League in England collect £65 million a year from Sky, while the English Premier League have recently agreed a staggering new contract worth £1.7 billion a year.
While Deila appreciates the practicalities which force his team to play one of their most significant fixtures of the campaign just 56 hours after a draining Europa League tie against Inter Milan in Italy, he believes Sky have got their timing all wrong on this occasion.
“I understand it is the television controlling it and because Sky want it, we have to play before everyone else in England,” said Deila. “But when does it stop? Are we going to play games at 10am soon? We have to think of the fans as well – at 3pm, more people come and it would be an even bigger game.
“This is a very big game in Scotland, it should be getting a prime time slot on television. Sky have to answer for that but it seems to get earlier and earlier now.
“I think Celtic and Aberdeen deserve more respect. I don’t think there will be 50,000 fans at the game between Norwich and Ipswich. Our game is huge, the interest is very good, so I think a 12 noon kick-off is not right.”
Irrespective of when it begins, Deila is relishing a contest which offers Celtic the chance to exert a firm grip on the title race if they can end Aberdeen’s impressive current 13-match unbeaten run in the Premiership.
With his team three points clear of the Dons with a game in hand, which they will play at home to St Johnstone next Wednesday night, Deila believes there is greater pressure on Derek McInnes’ side to win tomorrow.
“It’s like a cup final for Aberdeen but not for us,” said the Norwegian. “But we want to win it and also win again on Wednesday which would take us nine points ahead of Aberdeen with a much better goal difference as well. It would be very tough for them to get it back then. It won’t be over if we win on Sunday, but we would have put ourselves in a very good position.”
McInnes and his players have consistently talked down their title credentials this season but Deila is in no doubt as to the strength of their aspirations to dethrone Celtic.
“Of course they are saying what they say to lower the expectations,” he said. “But they don’t have anything else to play for and they strengthened their team in January, so of course they want to win the title. If they don’t, why are they even playing football?
“They are a good team. They are very clear in what they do, you can see the pattern all the time. They are very good on the counter-attack. They have consistency in their squad and in their management, and then they get improvement from that.”
Celtic’s players must recover both physically and emotionally from the disappointment of their Europa League elimination at the San Siro on Thursday night. For Deila, the manner in which they ran Inter Milan close before losing 4-3 on aggregate has simply heightened his level of motivation to ensure Celtic retain their domestic title in order to have another crack at the Champions League next season.
“The only thing I was thinking about when the final whistle went in Milan was ‘I want more of this, I want more games at this level’,” said Deila. “I saw in the faces of the players that they feel the same. If we all want that, then Sunday’s game is the time to show it.
“I think it will be harder for the players to recover physically than mentally. It was a tough defeat to take on Thursday, but this is another big game for us. It’s easier to get back up to play Aberdeen than it would be to face, without any offence, say St Mirren or Motherwell. We know we have to be really up for it to beat Aberdeen.
“We have a big squad, so we will make some changes as well. We also have strong players, like Scott Brown, Stefan Johansen and Nir Bitton, who will just get on with it and will be ready again on Sunday. It even makes something positive of Virgil van Dijk’s sending-off in Milan, because he has had extra time to recover.
“The motivation for me is unbelievable now, the way I see my team is developing. I told the players I was proud of them after Inter, because they showed we can do something at European level. Now we must work even harder, win everything in Scotland and be ready for the Champions League next season.”
Celtic captain Scott Brown, meanwhile, has scornfully dismissed Aberdeen midfielder Willo Flood’s recent claim that the Parkhead side “fear us a little bit” ahead of tomorrow’s showdown.
“We don’t fear anybody,” said Brown. “We were down to ten men in the San Siro but didn’t fear Inter Milan, so why would we fear Aberdeen? They can talk themselves up if they want. We’ll talk ourselves up as well but it comes down to what happens in the 90 minutes. I think you’ve got to regard them as title challengers with what they’ve done this season and how well they’ve played. They’re out of both cups now so they’ve got to focus on winning the league.
It’ll be a good game. They’re keen and they look like a good football side as well. Derek McInnes has done a good job but we’re a good team as well. We’ll push them to their limits on Sunday and see how far they are willing to go.”