AMID the many wondrous elements to be savoured in the cacophony at Celtic Park on Thursday night, a note of reason seemed to be drowned out.
All precedent suggests there is nary a chance of Ronny Deila’s side being in the hat for the Europa League last 16 come late Thursday night. The 3-3 draw with Internazionale in Glasgow had a gloriously ’80s-’90s old-school Celtic in Europe feel about it. It was also gloriously entertaining. Yet teams that buckle themselves in for continental white-knuckle rides and dare to swash their way to opponents’ goals at home don’t tend to win on the road.
That is what Celtic need to do in the San Siro to eliminate Roberto Mancini’s men. Or, to put it another way, they need to register what would be only a second European away win in 37 attempts in post-qualifier continental competition since their run to the 2003 UEFA Cup final. The “Celtic way”, the progressive, expansive style that was such a joy on Thursday, was largely jettisoned by Gordon Strachan and then Neil Lennon. Containment and counter-attack have been the Celtic way in Europe for more than a decade now. With good reason.
Strachan, indeed, has expressed regret that his team were such a grim watch when they beat Manchester United in 2006 to make the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time. To repeat this feat the following year, he impressively set up his side so that scoring only five goals across their six group games – three of these from deflections – could be enough. One fewer strike, in fact, and Celtic would have finished bottom of their section. Lennon’s annus mirabilis in 2012, meanwhile, was underpinned by set-piece strikes in each of the three wins; one of these, in Moscow, during that solitary away success since 2003.
Just don’t try to tell Deila he is a dreamer, though, some sort of misplaced idealist, through his attempt to see his team prosper in Europe the hard way – all too hard, in the minds of pragmatic predecessors. “I’m not doing this for romance, I’m doing this to get results, and I believe we can do it,” he said. “Against Inter we showed it was possible, but that and away from home are two different things. We will have to defend but vary our pressure [in the San Siro].
“Have they [recent Celtic managers] tried anything else? I don’t know, I haven’t seen the matches they have played before. There’s two aspects. We had to go through, we got into the group stages and that’s the goal. We have to win the league, and go into the group stages [of the Champions League] next season, that’s the goal. And then it is about developing players. If you only defend then you don’t develop them, in my opinion. You have to let them embrace themselves.
“But there is a small line between results and this. I know the best teams and if you see the small teams going through as well they have a system that they really believe in and play. I’ve seen Rosenberg do it before. For the first three or four years they were losing 5-0 but then they started to adapt, their players relied on the system and believed in it. But I think the experiences of this team and in this club is much more than it was in Norway. You also have Viktoria Plzen from Czech Republic and I saw them play against Manchester City, very offensive. The Portuguese teams do it many times, Ajax do it, so it’s possible. You have to believe in a style and my goal is also to try to get a Celtic style of playing, that’s how we want to be.”
Deila, likely to make a raft of changes for the visit of Hamilton Accies to Glasgow today, wants his “principles” to encompass vocal, backline performers who seek to take charge. With Adam Matthews, Emilio Izaguirre and Jason Denayer all self-contained types, and the 19-year-old on-loan Manchester City defender Denayer forming an exceedingly young centre-back partnership with Virgil van Dijk, the Celtic manager needs to bolster aspects he considers could be crucial in Thursday’s second leg.
“We have to cut out the mistakes and improve the communication in the team, especially at the back. They have to talk even more. We have to bring that out of them, to develop. It’s also to look for when we’re bringing players – a leadership style.
“Virgil has stepped up in that way, he’s much better than he’s been, but he’s still young. There’s a lot of attention on them when they play these games. They have to deal with that. There are 20 clubs coming to watch them. So it’s mentally tough. To have an experienced central defender could be a good thing, but I’d choose to stick with those two if I could. This week, though, everything is possible. It will be a great achievement if we go through and beat them in Milan.”
For all Inter’s defensive frailties, it would be more than that. Recent history suggests it would be a minor miracle.
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