THERE are oodles of reasons for Ronny Deila to go all of a flutter about Internazionale’s visit to Celtic Park on Thursday.
The Europa League last-32 first leg will see the first 60,000 sell-out at the stadium during his eight-month tenure. In Roberto Mancini, the Norwegian will be testing himself against one of the über-managers of European football in recent times. And, of course, the fixture drips nostalgia owing to the storied Milan club being the vanquished opponents as Jock Stein’s Celtic captured the European Cup in 1967 – “the biggest moment in the club’s history”, as Deila acknowledges.
All of these elements bring a gravitas to this week’s encounter that gives it the feel of those Champions League nights so much the focus of the club’s modern-day folklore. Yet, no small part of the appeal that energises the Celtic manager about this week’s confrontation is precisely that it can be set apart from any Champions League night he has known at the club.
Deila visibly squirms when he is asked to compare the Inter game with the Legia Warsaw qualifier in Europe’s premier competition that brought a disastrous night at Murrayfield six weeks into his time in Scotland. Or the calamitous night in the play-off round that followed against Maribor as the result of Legia’s 6-1 aggregate win being transformed into an away-goals progression through their fielding of an ineligible player.
“You can’t compare,” he says. “Going into the games in summer you just had to try to manage them. I wasn’t trying to affect them as much as just hoping the team could carry me on and help me. Now I feel like we are united and everybody knows their task in terms of how we want to perform.
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“I am enjoying it now. I didn’t enjoy it at that time. I was just managing the situation. It was very hard, there were a lot of expectations and at the same time it didn’t feel that we were ready to face the challenge. Even though we were close to getting there. Not against Legia but against Maribor, we should have done it [only to fall 16 minutes short of the clean sheet that would have been enough]. But I think it was good for us to go through the Europa League ties because we developed through those games and I’m really looking forward against Inter.”
Deila deems his Celtic team to have developed to such an extent that he rejects the suggestion that the Italians are “big” favourites. Yet, for all that Mancini’s men have been poor in Serie A in struggling to secure merely top-half-of-the-table status, they simply have better players than their Scottish opponents. Additionally, it is 11 years since Celtic took out a team from one of the big five leagues in Europe. That success for Martin O’Neill’s side against Barcelona in the UEFA Cup notably came when Celtic operated with one of the top eight wage bills in Britain. The eye-popping television deals struck down south since, most recently last week, leave Celtic now nestling around the mid-30s mark in the UK rankings for clubs’ football spend.
In some ways Deila is caught between the devil and the deep green sea – as was his predecessor Neil Lennon. The Norwegian could be on course of a domestic clean sweep. The financial differentials that allow his club to lord it over all others in Scotland, though, mean only the match-ups with Inter provide opportunities to pull off wins with a genuine ‘wow factor’. However, the fact the financial differentials are so against Celtic when they are themselves pitted against a football grandee such as Inter makes any stirring successes ever more unlikely.
“I don’t think they are big favourites. They are favourites, but not big,” Deila still determines. “Inter are not what they were in 2010. They are not doing so well in the league. He [Mancini] has changed his formation four times in four matches so maybe that is a sign he hasn’t found his right team yet. But I watched them have a good performance against Palermo last weekend and they won quite easily [3-0]. I do think it is a good moment to meet them though. We have a fair chance and I will try to keep it that way.
“It [might be harder for the club now] but Celtic have been used to fighting against good teams. The European history of Celtic has been fantastic. But times are changing, you see the money in England. You can’t compare the situation now with ten years ago, it is not even close. The difference is so much bigger. But if we have a good generation, then we can beat anyone. Celtic showed that two years ago when they beat Barcelona and also went through to the last 16. That was an unbelievable achievement.”
Celtic’s most unbelievable achievement of all came in Lisbon, almost 48 years ago, of course. Deila has yet to watch that 2-1 victory that genuinely set a new template for attacking football, and skewered the stultifying defensive system then patented by the Italians. He has, though, delevoped an appreciation of Jimmy Johnstone’s on-field greatness and “intelligent man” Stein’s oratory genius.
Deila has been particularly taken by his Celtic predecessor’s bon mots, especially in Stein’s description of “pure, beautiful, inventive football” as having carried the day in the Portuguese capital; his understanding that “football is nothing without fans”, and the warning that “the Celtic jersey does not shrink to fit inferior players”. Yet, the fact is it is inferior players to Inter’s performers in those jerseys this week seeking to gain stature in a domain that has regularly rendered them diminutive these past two years.