HAVING first attracted Celtic’s attention with some stellar work in Scandinavia, it is perhaps appropriate that the region should provide the venue tonight for Ronny Deila’s most significant opportunity yet to vindicate his appointment as their manager 14 months ago.
In front of a sell-out 21,000 crowd at the Swedbank Stadium, the Norwegian faces the acid test of his tenure with a place in the Champions League group stage within his grasp.
It’s about getting the best teams in the world to Celtic Park – that’s what we wantRonny Deila
Over-achieving while in charge of unfashionable Stromsgodset in his homeland was enough to make Deila the surprise choice of the Celtic board to replace Neil Lennon last year.
Dealing with the demands of the Scottish champions and their supporters, for whom a place among the elite clubs in Europe’s top competition is now regarded as the benchmark for managerial success, is an altogether different challenge.
There is no danger of Deila underestimating just how much it means for Celtic as they take a 3-2 lead into the second leg of the play-off round tie against Malmö.
But it is indicative of his relaxed frame of mind and natural optimism that he regards it as simply a prelude to far more momentous times in the job.
“It is like a cup final,” admitted the 39-year-old. “Hopefully it is the biggest game for me as Celtic manager so far and then the next one in Europe will be even bigger. For me, it is about getting better and better. If we get through, then we can show that we have taken another step forward as a team.
“I’ve been very clear with my goals since the first day I came to Celtic. We have done a very good job so far. If we can win on Tuesday night, we are in a very good situation going forward.
“Of course this is a big game for the club and everyone connected with it. We want to get to the Champions League group stage and we will have succeeded in one of our first goals if we do that on Tuesday. So it is one of the biggest games of our whole season and very, very important.”
The financial implications of the 90 minutes against the Swedish champions are well documented, with qualification worth a minimum of £14 million and probably closer to £20m for Celtic.
Even with the 65 per cent increase in Europa League prize money introduced by Uefa this season, dropping into the group stage of the secondary tournament would still represent very small beer by comparison.
While fully aware of that, Deila’s motivation for success tonight comes from a sporting perspective.
“It’s a big game for Scottish football because of the money,” he added. “Getting to the Champions League is even more important for small countries.
“But for us as coaches and players, it is about getting into the highest level of football and testing yourself against the best teams in the world. It’s about getting the best teams in the world to Celtic Park – that’s what we want.”
Keeping a clean sheet tonight would ensure success for Celtic and Deila is hopeful his back four will be strengthened by the return of Mikael Lustig. The Swedish right-back was taken off on a stretcher with a hamstring injury during last week’s first leg but is with the squad in his homeland.
“We will see tomorrow if he is ready or not,” said Deila. “But we have brought him with us because he has a chance. He hasn’t done any work since he got the injury last week, just rest and treatment.”
If Lustig doesn’t make it, Deila faces a choice between experienced Nigerian international Efe Ambrose or recently recruited Swiss teenager Saidy Janko for the right-back slot. Janko impressed there in Saturday’s Premiership win at Dundee United, while Ambrose has delivered some error-strewn displays in recent times.
“Saidy did himself a lot of good on Saturday. He played well,” agreed Deila. “He showed he is capable of doing well in that position.
“We will see tomorrow what we do. Efe has played many fantastic games for Celtic. I know his strengths and his weaknesses. But he is an experienced player.”
One key figure for Celtic this evening will be Virgil van Dijk, amid ongoing speculation it could be the Dutch defender’s final appearance for the club ahead of a potential move to Southampton or Stoke City.
As the Celtic players gathered in the arrivals hall at Malmö Airport yesterday afternoon, Van Dijk was a man alone. He sat on the edge of the baggage conveyor belt, some distance away from his team-mates, his eyes firmly fixed on the screen of his mobile phone.
But Deila dismissed any suggestions that Van Dijk will be in any way distracted from the task in hand.
“His head is here with Celtic, that’s for sure,” said Deila. “He has played very well in the recent games and he will be very motivated going into this one. I have no worries about Virgil whatsoever because I haven’t seen anything to worry about.
“He is focused. In the home game against Malmö he was very good, especially in the first half. He was vital for us and he’s going to be very important for us in this game also.”
Celtic face a Malmö side strengthened by the return of captain Markus Rosenberg and Ghanaian midfielder Enoch Adu who both missed the first leg through suspension.
“They will be a better team with Rosenberg back,” added Deila. “He is their captain and has a lot of experience of these games.
“We are ahead and a draw would put us through, but we will go out to win the game. Of course, it depends also on the picture of the game and how the match plan is going. We have to defend well but also cause them problems.”