Strikers must deliver on promise if Celtic are to have any hope of meeting Europe’s elite this, or any, season
CHAMPIONS League qualifiers leave Celtic at more crossroads than are endured on America’s Route 61. Yet, even by their typical standards, the deciding leg of their third-round qualifier against Qarabag in the Azerbaijan capital of Baku is a spaghetti junction of a tie.
[For Ciftci] the goals are coming, that doesn’t worry me
Celtic didn’t reach the play-off qualifying round of the tournament last season through their on-field prowess – they had administrators at Legia Warsaw to thank for that. If they cannot use a 1-0 first-leg lead as a platform to take them there in midweek then it would represent a new low in their efforts merely to negotiate a path to the group stages of club football’s most prestigious tournament. Moreover, such an outcome would result in Ronny Deila becoming the first title-winning Celtic manager to fail to be mixing it with European football’s grandees in his second season.
What would make that all the more of a dent to the Norwegian’s reputation is that, unlike predecessors Martin O’Neill, Gordon Strachan, Tony Mowbray and Neil Lennon, the reformatting of the qualifiers has meant Deila hasn’t had to face up to a team from the top 13 ranked nations.
Much has been made of the capabilities of Qarabag, and in Glasgow they were more than tidy, if utterly toothless. Unlike Celtic, though, they don’t have close to a £33 million football budget and experience of actually competing in the Champions League, as do no fewer than five players in the Celtic squad the other night.
Qarabag had a fine Europa League campaign last season and registered notable results against Internazionale, tournament finalists Dnipro and St Etienne. Yet, if that then suggests they could put the freeze on Celtic’s Champions League aspirations, then the Scottish champions’ notions about their place in the footballing ocean are headed for an iceberg.
But for the width of the goal frame, a desperately ordinary Shakhter Karagandy would have deprived Lennon of Champions League football in the last of his four full seasons in charge. Maribor did for Deila in his first, after Legia only lacked the paperwork for this result. It is starting to appear that Celtic can no longer have any faith in engineering equitable returns from their still sizeable football spend. Unless they are ranged against teams consistently culled in early qualifying rounds – and even Elfsborg gave them a scare three years ago – their vulnerability is threatening to become alarming. Should they fail against Qarabag then they will be no more competent on the continent than an Aberdeen team with a fifth of their budget.
Yet, a delve into the make-up of Deila’s side the other night perhaps illustrates why that should be no great surprise. Celtic’s front three, in their last full season with Dundee United, could not even propel the Tannadice club into European qualifiers via the club’s Scottish league position.
Nadir Ciftci, Stuart Armstrong and, to a lesser extent, Gary-Mackay Steven, struggled to provide the creativity required to make the difference against such disciplined defensive performers as Qarabag. With an inviting corner that allowed Dedryck Boyata to power the ball into the net, that spark was left to late substitute Kris Commons.
Ciftci’s arrival in a £1.5m deal last month marked something of a change of tack following the failures of Amido Balde, Teemu Pukki, Derk Boerrigter and Stefan Scepovic. In being recruited from Spain, Germany, Holland and Spain respectively, these have proved bad buys from good leagues. With Ciftci, Celtic have gone native. Yet, that means asking a player to cut it in a far more exacting environment whenever he is pitched into a European qualifier against capable opponents.
“It’s a very big jump going from Dundee United to trying to get into the Champions League with Celtic,” Deila acknowledged the other day. “At the beginning, it’s just about being there. But the only way they’ll learn is to give them the experience. They’re good players and they have the ability to do something on that stage. I know that. They will get better and better. But I know it takes time to understand what this club is about.”
For Ciftci, it is taking time even just to find the net. His six outings have yet to yield such a moment. “We have spoken together, not about goals, but about how I want him to play for Celtic,” Deila said. “I think Nadir is getting there. He’s more of a No.9 than a No.10. Sometimes he plays as a 10 but he drops too deep for me. I want him to be more up front, he has to be a target man for us. He’s had a few chances and we’ve seen in training that his finishing is good. So the goals are coming, that doesn’t worry me. I was pleased with his performance on Wednesday night, he played very well.”
Yet, with Celtic sure to be willing to sit in and counter-attack a Qarabag who, by necessity, will be more expansive on Wednesday, Deila can see a case for Leigh Griffiths. The ball may not stick with the striker, but he can stick it in the net when given the opportunity to instinctively run on to it.
“It will be a different game so we have to find the right team,” he said. “They play a bit like Barcelona in terms of keeping possession. They play a lot but their penetration wasn’t quite there on Wednesday night. Of course, they have to attack us much more in the away game. We need to be ready for their movement which is good. They didn’t get that at Celtic Park because they didn’t get to the final third.
“They will also push their full-backs further forward. It’ll open up and I expect a difficult game. But the spaces will be bigger when we attack over there. First and foremost, we need to defend well. That’s the most important thing because we know we’ll get chances to score goals. We must be able to play different systems but we can’t surprise ourselves. We have to know what we’re doing so we’ll make small changes. We’ve had some good away games in the Europa League, like in Salzburg. We’ve scored goals everywhere we’ve been – that has to be a positive for us.”
The positive has to be the result against a side that have scored only once in their previous five home European ties. If it isn’t, Celtic might have to start accepting they are an over-sized Europa League team.