IT WOULD be understandable for February to have far more allure than the remaining weeks of January for those within the Celtic camp. Tomorrow’s game against Hamilton will give way to league encounters with Motherwell and Ross County as the club wrap up the first month of 2015.
This trio of fixtures hardly has the captivating qualities inherent in February’s three juiciest fixtures for Ronny Deila’s men.
The League Cup semi-final will see a meeting between Celtic and Rangers for the first time in three years – and mark the first time either side has played in front of a 50,000 crowd domestically this season – while the first leg of the Europa League ties against Internazionale will provide Deila with his first experience of a Celtic Park capacity crowd.
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Regulation league matches may seem humdrum in comparison, but Celtic’s manager yesterday acknowledged that Aberdeen’s recent ratcheting up of their competitive levels has ensured his team must live only for the present.
The Pittodrie side’s top-of-the-pile Premiership status has tended to be presented as an indictment of Celtic’s progress in Deila’s first season. Yet, should Derek McInnes’ men beat Dundee at home tomorrow to register a ninth consecutive league win, they will become the first team outside of Celtic and Rangers to put together such a winning run since Aberdeen notched a 15-game sequence of victories 44 years ago. No wonder Deila dismissed any possible distractions as his side prepare for New Douglas Park following their near fortnight winter-break hiatus.
“Aberdeen is making that job easier for us because everybody knows what the most important thing is: and that is the league,” he said. “That is number one and then the cups are after that. We are hungry. I see the hunger in us in training and I can’t wait to start playing games again.”
The perception of Celtic as a fits-and-starts team under Deila doesn’t tally with the fact that they have claimed 28 out of a possible 33 points in their past 11 Premiership games. That impression has formed because Aberdeen have harvested 30 points from their past 11 games, opening up a four-point gap over Celtic because they have played two games more.
“It is important to see behind the results and sometimes you need to give the opponents credit as well,” added Deila. “We have had some good points and results in the last two or three months but our opponents have followed us and you have to also give them credit. We have to keep up and we are only halfway. If we can keep up the improvement in the next matches then hopefully we will get more points than we have so far and we will see if Aberdeen can cope with that.”
Deila fully expects they will in bracing himself for a close campaign. “That is good for the league, of course,” he said. “There are more teams competing for the championship. Again, we have won a lot of matches but we need to be on top of every game to get the title because Aberdeen are doing very well and there are other teams behind Aberdeen who, if they get a run, will also be into it.
“It is hard to say [if it is a surprise that Aberdeen are challenging] but if you see behind the results, they have had the consistency over time. They played good matches in the Europa League against Real Sociedad and they kept on going with what they were doing – consistency gets results. That is what we want to do as well.
“It’s going to be a tough match but we have good confidence. I’d expect Aberdeen to keep pushing us. It is how it is. But I am determined to win. That is what we are thinking of every day.” Deila is well aware that the consequence of not doing so would be fatal to his hopes of building something of permanence at Celtic. It was put to him yesterday that he is a development coach but that if he did not win the title he would not be able to develop a team over two, three or four years.
“But I’m a winner. I’m not a development coach. I’m both,” he said. “You can’t do one thing and not the other. It’s hard. If you don’t develop you don’t get better. It goes hand in hand. Short and long-term. I’ve won things before and I’m here to win. That’s the most important thing.”