KRIS COMMONS believes Celtic manager Ronny Deila’s newly-crowned Scottish champions are better than the team which reached the last 16 of the Champions League under Neil Lennon.
Celtic’s 46th Scottish title was confirmed on Saturday when nearest rivals Aberdeen lost to Dundee United at Tannadice, leaving Deila’s men uncatchable with three games of the season to spare.
“If we have everyone at it, then we can match anyone in Europe. We have proved that”Kris Commons
After an unconvincing start to his first season in the job, Norwegian coach Deila has moulded a consistent and often free-flowing side who have now secured Celtic’s fourth consecutive title win.
The acid test for Deila will come in next season’s Champions League qualifiers where he will be expected to improve on the calamitous campaign he oversaw last July and August when Celtic, after having a 6-1 aggregate defeat by Legia Warsaw overturned by Uefa after the Polish side were found to have fielded an ineligible player, were eliminated in the play-off round by Slovenian champions Maribor.
Playmaker Commons has no doubts Celtic will be significantly better equipped and prepared when Deila has his second shot at the Champions League. He also feels they now have more quality in depth than the squad which made it to the last 16 in 2013.
High-profile players from that side have since moved on, including Fraser Forster, Victor Wanyama, Joe Ledley, Beram Kayal, Georgios Samaras and Gary Hooper.
But Commons insists the pool of players Deila has brought together over the past few months can eclipse their predecessors and build on the potential he felt they showed in their narrow defeat by Inter Milan in the last 32 of the Europa League this season.
“I think the squad is good enough to get into the Champions League group stages,” said Commons. “I think this is a better squad than when we got to the last 16 two seasons ago. Man for man, if you look through the squad, then we still have a huge amount of talent in this dressing room despite losing a lot of big players and top professionals.
“I still think we’re in a very good place. The fine line of playing at the top level is that all 11 need to be at that level. We can’t have six or seven playing well and the others not quite at it.
“If we have everyone at it, then we can match anyone in Europe. We have proved that.
“We are in a better place than we were last year when we were going into the qualifiers. We haven’t got a new manager, we have not got a new backroom staff and there is nothing that has changed a great deal.
“Hopefully, the full squad will be together and we know what is required from each player to make us better and we know what is required to play at that level.
“We need to be in Europe. The Champions League is the cream of the crop. If we went on a really good run in the Europa League, people would look back and say ‘I think they did really well there’, but you can’t get knocked out of the Champions League and not have a good run in the Europa League. I don’t think it is acceptable.
“We came up against a good Inter Milan side and, if we had beaten them and gone on again, people would have said ‘yeah, they are starting to improve and they are getting better’.
“Apart from the first 15 minutes against them at home, I thought we were exceptional in that tie. Over in Milan, we were down to ten men early on, but I think we have shown signs we can be a really, really good team.”
Commons never harboured any doubts Celtic would retain their domestic crown, despite Aberdeen pushing them closer than most pundits would have anticipated at the start of the season.
Celtic were as low as sixth place in the table in early October as they struggled to overcome their sluggish start to life under Deila. “We knew that the league was always the number one on the tick box for us,” added Commons.
“You need to win that to get to where you want to be, which is the Champions League. Most of your pre-season and your drive is to win the league for that goal. Last year, though, there were too many things that went against us at the time of the qualifiers. A new manager with new players and new backroom staff was trying to do things all at once and it was all just too soon.
“If we could play our qualifiers between November and January, then we’d have a much better chance of qualifying! That’s when you are fully in the zone and into the way you should be playing. Everyone will be trying to come back this time as fit as they can be and give of their best in pre-season to show the manager, ‘Hey, I want to be in your starting eleven. We’re better with me in the team’.
“Ultimately, though, it’s not about myself or any individual. We are trying to make the team better, be it coming off the bench or being a bit-part player. If we get Champions League football, I don’t think there will be an unhappy player even if they are on the bench.”