FOR as long as Scottish clubs have been engaged in the Champions League qualification process, it has been a form of mental torture for the managers concerned.
Walter Smith, the first man to lead a Scottish team into the group stage way back in 1992, would regularly describe the qualifying rounds as the most difficult and least enjoyable experiences of his career at the helm of Rangers, even when successful.
The most recent man to achieve the feat, Neil Lennon at Celtic two years ago with a dramatic second-leg recovery against Shakhter Karagandy in the play-off round, stated afterwards that he never wanted to go through it again.
Lennon’s successor Ronny Deila did not take long to appreciate the pain which the intense early-season schedule of the Champions League qualifiers can deliver as Celtic flopped badly against Legia Warsaw and Maribor in the first few weeks of his tenure 12 months ago.
But Deila believes he has now found a strategy to cope with the pressure and demands faced by the Scottish champions, one which he hopes can rub off on his players as they take their latest step in this year’s tournament against Azerbaijani side Qarabag at Celtic Park tonight.
“If you are stressed, you do stupid things as a coach,” said Deila. “It’s the same with the players. If they are stressed, then they make silly mistakes in the games which can be costly.
If I’ve done the work I should have done, then I sleep well before these gamesRonny Deila
“The biggest challenge for these games is that you always want to do too much, you feel like you’re putting all your energy into the games. When you do that, then it is going to be over-stressed.
“But we are starting to get some experience in this, switching onto the right things. It’s about enjoying the game, looking forward to it and believing in what you have done for a long time.
“That’s important. If you start now to think what you’re doing is not right or you have to change it, then you’re not a good coach. You have to believe in what you’re doing.
“You have to use time to reflect when you can and you have to be confident.
“We know what we’re going to meet, we know we are facing a good team in Qarabag in this round.
“But in the end it’s about what we are doing. It’s about how we cope with their strength.
“Most of all, it’s about how we get our strengths into the game. You have to do what you do all the time but you also have to be cautious in small things too. You do the same when you meet Aberdeen or Ross County. But now, in the Champions League qualifiers, the small details are even more important.
“If I’ve done the work I should have done, then I sleep well before these games. If I feel I am not prepared, then I don’t sleep.
“I just think of the choices I have to make. That’s why after games I don’t sleep very well. You reflect, you go through the game and you look for answers.
“But I’m definitely sleeping better now than I was this time last year.
“I’m more in control of the situation now but then again it’s a football match.
“We have to go out, believe in ourselves. Qarabag have a lot of quality and they have got a lot of good results in the last half a year. But if we are at our best, we caused Inter Milan problems so we can cause Qarabag problems as well.”
Qarabag deploy a similar 4-2-3-1 formation to the one favoured by Deila at Celtic and arrive in Glasgow with a respectable recent pedigree in European football.
A record of eight clean sheets in their last 14 Champions League and Europa League games suggests a solid level of defensive proficiency, while they performed admirably in the Europa League group stage against St Etienne, Inter Milan and eventual finalists Dnipro last season.
“They are quite similar to Legia who beat us last year,” added Deila. “They are a very good team with different qualities in different areas. They have good relations among their players, especially on the wings.
“They have a lot of penetration so we have to be very strong defensively. If we do that, then we’ll get the spaces to create too.
“I think it’s going to be an open game. We want it to be compact and close and to be good defensively. When we do that, we are always a good team. It starts in defence.
“The crowd inside Celtic Park are quite intelligent. We will play a lot of the same way we normally do but it’s about high pressure, intensity, it’s about getting forward quickly when we get the chance. It is also sometimes, when you meet good opponents, about defending as well.
“We want to be in their half all the time but when you play good teams you know you’ll have to defend. The fans can see that. It won’t be a problem.
“We must stick together as a team defensively. When we do that, we don’t concede goals.
“When we don’t, as against Dukla Prague in pre-season when we conceded five goals and also a little bit against Inter at home when we were too wide and too open in the 3-3 draw last season, that’s what causes us the biggest problems.
“But we have experienced this before and we can take that into this game.”