STICK or twist? With potentially as much as £20 million on the line, it’s by far the biggest tactical call Ronny Deila has had to make.
For while the 1-1 draw earned in the first leg in Maribor has seen Deila’s Celtic side installed as heavy odds-on favourites to complete the job in Glasgow tonight and reach the group stage of the Champions League, they are in a situation which can still prove precarious.
Jose Mourinho, a man as well versed as most in the nuances of two-legged European ties, has described 1-1 as a “dangerous” scoreline for the team playing at home in the second leg.
Celtic do not have to delve too far into their own European history for examples of how finely balanced it is. Back in 2000, a promising 1-1 draw in Bordeaux for Martin O’Neill’s team was wiped out by a 2-1 defeat back at Celtic Park. And just seven years ago, Gordon Strachan’s side needed a nerve-wracking penalty shoot-out to eclipse Spartak Moscow after the Russians had matched up a pair of 1-1 results.
So it is understandable that Deila, while instinctively a progressive and attack-minded coach, is willing to embrace a degree of caution as he prepares to face Slovenian opponents he believes could prove more effective on the road than they were in their own Ljudski vrt Stadium last Wednesday.
“You have to have a plan and I have a good plan,” said Deila. “We’re going to put it into practice. You need a balance. You have be offensive and aggressive in your head but also tactically aware.
“So you can actually say we need aggressive legs and calm heads, if you can put it in that order. That’s hard to do, but I think we have a good atmosphere in the group now – and they all know what we’re playing for. We’ve been given another chance after losing to Legia Warsaw and now we have to go out and fight for it, show that we’re good enough.
“We had a good performance in Slovenia but also I felt that Maribor could hurt us at any time. If we lose concentration, they are there. They’re very direct and have good skills up front, as well as being hard to break down.
“If somebody was going to win the first leg, I think it would have been us with the chances we created. But this is a new game now. We have to attack it in a positive way and see it as an opportunity.
“It’s going to be a very tactical game. Maribor are a very tactical team – it’s very easy to know what they’re going to do but very hard to stop them. They are very clear about what they want to do.
“Maribor will try to counter-attack, pretty much the same as they did at home. But we have the advantage of being at home, the atmosphere of Celtic Park and everything else. We have to use that to our advantage. We have to be offensive to get the crowd with us and push Maribor backwards. You also have to use your head in the right way. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Having admitted to mistakes in the 4-1 defeat away to Legia, a result which placed a black stain on the early days of his tenure until the Polish champions forfeited the tie by fielding a suspended player in the second leg at Murrayfield, Deila showed a willingness to be more pragmatic with his strategy in Maribor.
His favoured 4-2-3-1 set-up, with the accent firmly on attack, was modified with the introduction of the more defensively-minded Beram Kayal at the expense of playmaker Kris Commons.
“You can say that I compromised but 4-3-3 is maybe the formation I have played most with my teams,” said Deila. “So 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 are quite similar, it’s just the dynamic in the midfield, what type you want into the three.
“So I don’t think I compromised so much. That’s what we’re going to do in the future as well. In my heart, I want to play even more offensively but we played tactically smarter in Maribor and that’s also a lesson you have to learn. In Europe, tactically you have to find the balance between romance and smartness.
“It goes hand in hand – short-term results and also long-term in getting the culture of what you want do at a club. That’s compromise. You have to take things over time and that’s what we have to do at Celtic.
“I have to adapt as well. There are a lot of things in Celtic that I can learn and get better from that will make me into a better coach. Every day, it is developing for me here. Every day I get new challenges.
“That is the opportunity we have now in the Champions League. If we go through, we get more games like this. You can go to school or you can try to sit at home and learn things.
“You have to be in something to understand what it is all about. Of course, you can prepare as well as you can but, to actually understand it, you have to be in it. The club has been involved in the Champions League many times and it means a lot for the players and the supporters as well. It would be huge for me also. We have a new chance and we have to go out there and give everything we have.”