IN THE past 16 months, Celtic have been beaten five times in Europe on Scottish soil. The same number of games, indeed, they lost at home in continental competition across the previous five years. A club that developed a reputation for being able to knock heavyweights to the canvas with wins over such as Barcelona, AC Milan, Manchester United and Juventus in the east end of Glasgow, have more recently shown such a glass jaw in their own environs that even a relative lightweight in the form of Maribor could knock them over.
This diminishment is why, as he looked forward to tomorrow’s last 32 Europa League draw, Ronny Deila identified home improvement as the key to whether his side could make further progress in a tournament that could pair his team with such as Internazionale, Everton, Napoli, Olympiakos, Borussia Monchengladbach, Sporting Lisbon and – unenviably in light of recent history – Legia Warsaw. To name but a few.
Celtic’s unseeded status means that they will face a home leg first, on 19 February, in the first knock-out stage.
Deila accepts that on that night they will have to perfect a strategy that has largely eluded Celtic under him in their own backyard when facing unfamiliar opponents. He does so even when his team are fresh from a sobering 4-3 defeat away to Dinamo Zagreb on their last outing in Group D.
“It would be better to be away first, but we had that against Legia and Maribor and it hasn’t been so successful so maybe we switch it around and it will work the other way,” said the Norwegian. “At home we need to be more like what we were in the second half against Salzburg [in losing 3-1 to the Group D winners three weeks ago]. We need to keep the other team really under pressure because in the end they will open up.
“And that’s the biggest task. When we want to defend and keep a clean sheet we are quite good at that, but at home we really need to put that pressure on opponents so we can get very good results. It [can be hard at home] because it is much more difficult to attack than defend. To defend is to ruin the opponent and that is much easier.
“My biggest task here is to create a system where we can keep the other side under pressure and open them up. That takes time and that is my dream. As I said the first time I came here, [my dream is] to be at Celtic Park against a good, big opponent and to keep them under pressure, win the game and excite the fans.
“To outplay [big opponents] is a hard thing, but it is about getting higher up the pitch and winning the ball in good situations and creating chances by being direct and offensive.
“To do that to Barcelona is very hard, but that’s not what I’m aiming for. I want us to play forward and have a lot of moments in the last third of the pitch so we can break through. Again it’s a change of style and we have seen signs we are getting there, but in Europe the level is much higher and we have to compromise a little bit.”
Compromising with his squad’s approach, and complementing the personnel he has at his disposal, will determine what shape Celtic are in for their next European assignment. Sticking, as much as twisting, in the January transfer window is central to Deila’s desire to build.
“I’ve always said that it’s much more secure to keep than to buy,” he added. “It’s very exciting to get presents – but you don’t always get the presents you deserve. Sometimes it’s better to know what you have. That’s why it’s important we keep [John] Guidetti, [Jason] Denayer, [Virgil] Van Dijk, those type of players, for as long as possible.
“It’s always a hard time, this window; a lot of work, a lot of thinking and making decisions very quickly. It’s exciting but also tiring. We know who we want on board, we have a list of players. It’s hard to say how many I’d like. But two or three players coming in would be good. If we can do that, I’d be happy. But again, it’s about making sure they’re of the quality we want because if we bring in players who don’t have an effect on the team, it’s more damaging. It could be loans again, but they would include an option to buy, so we could get the player afterwards.
“We’re also looking at players in Scotland. That would be best for us, because it would be good for togetherness, they’d know the culture and the environment.” What indigenous talent wouldn’t know, though, was anything about winning last-32 Europa League ties.