THE Ronny Deila mantra for long enough is that everything is now so different from his first season at the Celtic helm. He needs his team to prove that in the continental arena on Tuesday when they meet Malmo to determine their Champions League fate.
Yesterday, though, demonstrated that on the domestic front August 2014 seems another age for the Norwegian.
Ahead of the trip to Sweden, Deila judiciously made nine changes from the team that beat Age Hareide’s side 3-2 in midweek. The tactic recalled his resting ten players for a Premiership encounter last year only days before the second leg of Celtic’s Champions League play-off failure against Maribor. Any other similarities, though, were purely incidental. While last year Celtic turned in an insipid display to go down 1-0 at Inverness, yesterday Deila’s largely second string were first rate in dismantling a Dundee United desperately short on confidence.
“I am very pleased,” said Deila. “We took some risks today but I had a better feeling this time than I had last year. We had a better squad and players who understand their task on the pitch. I don’t think it was easy for the other team in the first half as we created so many chances.
“We had some top players into the team today. It shows how many good players we have. It was the perfect scenario: win, confidence and energy into the team so we can have the best preparation into Tuesday.”
United ought to feel relieved that they avoided a thumping akin to the 4-0 humiliation they suffered at Hamilton. For all that their manager Jackie McNamara took positives from his side later finding their way, they easily faced such a deficit within the opening half-hour. Celtic were then rampant but faced a keeper, Luis Zwick, seemingly on a mission to stymie Kris Commons.
He produced a series of sharp stops from the playmaker in between being beaten by Leigh Griffiths – the forward netting what is beginning to seem his obligatory early strike – and his own player Mark Durnan. In so doing, Zwick allowed his team to remain in a contest in which they were being blitzed. A daft challenge by Efe Ambrose on Scott Fraser and Chris Erskine was able to produce a clinical spot-kick conversion that reduced the deficit to 2-1 seconds before the interval.
As well as a 74th minute Callum McGregor goal that owed everything to his edge-of-the-area shot taking a deflection off Coll Donaldson, the second period was notable for the first appearance of Scott Allan following his move from Hibernian a week ago. Predictably, the travelling support delighted in the appearance of a midfielder expected to sign for boyhood club Rangers this summer.
“I was just looking forward to getting on the park against my old team,” he said of the debut. “I got a great reception from the fans, it was different class, the same as last week when I went on the pitch at Parkhead.”
Allan’s invention and ingenuity has him marked out as a long-term replacement for Celtic’s foremost schemer Commons. The confident 23-year-old didn’t baulk at such a notion. “The manager made a lot of changes to the side but there are so many qualities here,” Allan said. “I can only become a better player training with the squad. Kris Commons came in and he was great. He’s been at Celtic for years now as one of their main performers. I’d like to think I could become like him by looking at what he’s been doing.”
Deila would have learned yesterday just how little he would have to fear from utilising his entire squad, should there be a Champions League campaign that would make the strategy sensible.
Yet not all defences will be as accommodating as United proved. Durnan, in particular, had a luckless afternoon. His attempt to cut-out a piercing through ball from Emilio Izaguirre merely knocked it into the path of Griffiths, who had timed his run to perfection to avoid being flagged. It seemed he had pushed the ball too far in rounding Zwick. His radar is on the money right now, though, and he squeezed the ball in from a tight angle for a seventh strike of the season.
After surviving further trauma until a minute before half-time, Durnan seemed to almost pass a Commons cross from the right into his own net. Nothing much is going right for United and McNamara right now. Although Celtic seem to have plenty going for them right now, meanwhile, what happens in Malmo will determine just how much.
Dundee United: Zwick; Dillon, Donaldson, Durnan, Dixon; J Souttar; Erskine (Connolly 77), McGowan, Fraser (Dow 54), Spittal; Muirhead. Subs: McCallum, H Souttar, Telfer, Murray, Coote.
Celtic: Bailly; Janko, O’Connell, Ambrose, Izaguirre; Rogic (Thomson 79), Mulgrew (McGregor 61); Mackay-Steven, Commons, Stokes; Griffiths (Allan 67). Subs: Fasan, Scepovic, Felleher, Tierney.
Referee: Willie Collum. Attendance: 10,605.