GOING back to the first half against Malmo at Celtic Park, that was when the European hopes shone brightest. They were leading, playing well and had the crowd rocking, according to manager Ronny Deila.
It was a pleasing snapshot before everything went wrong and the Swedes came back at them before adding the required goals to the aggregate scoreline at home to send the Scottish side packing from the Champions League.
A few months on and with the Europa League also threatening eviction, the team need to recapture the form and the support have to regenerate that vibe if they are to defy the odds and deny the critics who claim the manager and the team are not good enough to cut it on the European stage.
The statistics offer that theory credence, with the nation’s champions slumped at the foot of Group A like a drunk man outside a nightclub, full of bravado and hope, but offering very little evidence that they are in full possession of their faculties. They have mustered just two points from 12 thus far and require six from six against Ajax and Fenerbahce to have a chance of progressing to the knock-out rounds.
They are not out yet, says the manager, who dreams big. “I want to have that feeling we had in the first 30 minutes against Malmo, when the whole stadium was rocking. The feeling was unbelievable and getting it again is the dream. It’s more than possible.” But he admitted that getting the results required would signal an unbelievable turnaround.
He and the players want that, he says, they just have to be careful that the desire does manifest itself in anxiety and morph into desperation. “You feel that you have something to prove and you really want it. But we have to understand what we can do something with and that’s the performance. We just have to do our tasks, do everything right every day and enjoy it and if we do that everything will be fine.
“If we are going around thinking we can’t lose, we have to win then you don’t go anywhere, you can think about it as much as you want. You have to think what do we need to improve, how are we going to improve and then do things that have an effect on the pitch.
“It’s very easy to get your mind on to other things because of how big this club is and how many people care about it. But, if you are afraid to lose, then you will always do the safe things and then it is not easy to be creative and develop things.”
There was none of that fear in the first game against Ajax. Twice they took the lead and in a compelling contest they had looked a match for their hosts until Emilio Izaguirre’s red card gave Frank De Boer’s men the advantage and they hit back with a late equaliser. But even a point was hailed as shot in the arm at that stage. It was supposed to provide momentum. They go into this game hoping for a similar boost but this time a point won’t be enough.
“We had a good chance there,” admitted Deila. “But after the red card we were lucky not to lose as well. I think if it had stayed 11 versus 11 then we had good control of the game.
“We have to win but even 1-0 will be enough so it all starts with good defending. We have to be a unit with a lot of energy and belief, but we also have to be patient. We also have to show aggression and the tempo that we need to get into these games. We are at Celtic Park and we are going to be kings. That’s what we want to do.
“It’s the same as always. We need to win every game. We will do everything to do that. We need to get longer parts of the play like we had in the first half against Malmo, this kind of tempo. But we also have to be very disciplined and concentrated in the defence to keep them away from our goal.
“You can’t just go out and try to blow them off the pitch. The other teams can play football, too.”
It will also require the gaffer to find the right solution to his midfield woes. Nir Biton and Stefan Johansen are enforced absentees, while Scott Brown is only just back from a four-week lay-off, his outing against Kilrmarnock yesterday his first since he injured his knee in the warm up ahead of the League Cup quarter-final against Hearts last month. His manager is confident he can get 90 minutes out of his captain against the Dutch side but that still leaves a gap.
“I think it’ll come too early for Charlie [Mulgrew], maybe he’ll be on the bench. Tom Rogic can play there, Callum McGregor and Stuart Armstrong. They are the ones I’m thinking about playing centrally, if not we’ll have to go younger,” Deila said.
The pressure to deliver is immense in the all-or-nothing match but the situation is self-made. Individual errors have undermined the whole campaign and while Deila could still go on to add a domestic treble to the double he delivered next year, finding answers in Europe is how he will ultimately be judged.
“There is nothing I want more than to play Champions League with Celtic, that is a big, big goal but it is also a big goal to win games here in Scotland. Every time you win games you have to enjoy it. You can’t think we’re winning and that’s how it should be. Yes, maybe we should beat every team here in Scotland but you have to enjoy it when you do because it’s possible to lose games, the other teams are training as well.
“So be happy when things are positive and enjoy them and react when things are negative.
“Domestically so far we have lost one game and we are in everything and we have to enjoy that as well, but with Europe I know everyone wants it really bad. Sometimes we maybe want it to much.”