AS RONNY Deila discovered all too agonisingly last year, Celtic’s seeded status in the Champions League qualifiers offers no guarantee of success.
In those tumultuous early days of his tenure as manager, Deila and his team found lower-ranked opposition in the shape of Legia Warsaw and Maribor too hot to handle as they contrived to be eliminated from the tournament twice in quick succession.
The Norwegian has come a long way since then, as have the players under his guidance who have gelled and developed into a more cohesive and confident unit.
The level of that improvement will be properly assessed over the next six weeks which Deila hopes will see Celtic take their place in the group stage draw on 27 August.
That quest begins tonight with what should be a relatively gentle assignment against Icelandic side Stjarnan in the first leg of the second qualifying round tie at Celtic Park.
Far tougher tests await in the third qualifying round and then the play-off round, where unseeded opponents could include the likes of Polish champions Lech Poznan and Champions League regulars BATE Borisov of Belarus.
But Deila could scarcely be more bullish about his team’s ability to cope with whatever challenges they face.
“I’m not frightened about the level we are facing in the qualifiers,” said Deila. “We are good enough to do it and I really believe in my team.
“Last season, you saw Maribor go into the Champions League group stage and take points off Chelsea.
“Legia Warsaw also went through the Europa League group stage without losing a point.
“So there are good teams out there, especially the champions of different countries.
“It is a tough competition but we believe we can make it and go through to the group stage. Celtic is a very big club and we have very good players now. We have good togetherness and I’m really looking forward to the games now.
“We have to beat teams of the level of Maribor and Legia. That’s the level we have to be at now.
“We were far away from Legia’s level last year but when we played Maribor, we should have beaten them.”
Having been unhappy with the pre-season schedule he inherited 12 months ago, Deila opted to remain at home this year and play three warm-up fixtures at St Mirren Park while the pitch at Celtic Park was being relaid.
“It has worked out exactly as I hoped,” he added.
“I can’t see anything we should have done differently. We had a good pre-season and everyone is injury-free except Kris Commons (pictured). I am just excited to get going now and play some important games.
“It feels very different to last year. There were a lot of new things for me last year, and also for the players. Now it is a much more settled group and we are much more prepared.”
Celtic are priced as short as 1-20 to dispose of a Stjarnan side making their debut in the Champions League after their maiden domestic title success last year.
Deila shares the bookmakers’ assessment of his team’s superiority.
“The level in our team is high and we are going to cause them so many problems in this game,” he said. “That’s our target. Of course, we have to defend well too. But it’s easier to defend against a long ball than against teams who play out from the back.
“I’m confident we are ready for the game. If we are at our best, we are going to be a handful for them.
“Everything is possible but we just need to go out, make a good performance and see how good they are. We are favourites and it is a team we should beat.
“Stjarnan got some good results in the Europa League last year, so they have some experience. We have to be really prepared.
“But again, I know how good my team is and if we are on top of our game, we should break them down.”
With Scottish football’s reputation having already sustained another painful blow this season with St Johnstone’s first qualifying round exit from the Europa League at the hands of Armenian side Alashkert, Deila is conscious of the onus on Celtic to fly the flag at continental level. “It matters,” he said. “We have to concentrate on what we can do and we want to get into the group stage. That is important for us and it’s important for Scotland. We hope of course that everyone else is also doing well in Europe so that we can get better as a nation.
“But it’s tough, European football is tough. There are a lot of good countries out there, good football teams, a lot of money around, so it’s not easy.
“Scotland is a small nation. It’s like my country Norway, just five million people. So of course it is very hard. There are many, many countries where football is the biggest sport and they have good conditions to train well and do well.
“Also, there are a lot of countries with rich people who go into big clubs, or smaller clubs, and do them good. It is a tough journey.
“I don’t know the level in Armenia so it is hard for me to say anything about the St Johnstone result. But there could be good teams in other countries, even if the national team there is not good, because they have a rich man standing behind them.
“You have to look at the club rather than the nation. We also have to be humble and realistic and honest. When you go through these qualifiers and you look at where we stand in Scotland, that’s the level we are at.
“We can’t cheat ourselves better, we have to work to be better. Hopefully Aberdeen, Inverness and ourselves will all do well so we can get some good results for Scottish football this week.”