THE common consensus is that it is advantage Aberdeen when comparing their preparations for today’s game with hosts Celtic.
Celtic manager Ronny Deila will go part of the way with that assessment after the lung-busting efforts required by ten of his players for almost an hour as they exited the Europa League to Internazionale in the San Siro three days ago. The fact that Aberdeen have enjoyed a game-free week makes their build-up “better”, Deila concedes, though not in all respects, he says.
“We’ve done this many times before and we have a big squad,” he says. “I’ll make some changes but you also need strong players for this type of game and it’s easy to motivate them for such a big match. There’s two ways of looking at it. On one hand, maybe our legs won’t be 100 per cent ready after Thursday night. But on the other, we’re used to playing at that level now. We showed it against Hamilton – we started the game with a tempo they weren’t used to.
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“So we’re in a much better position now than when we first met Aberdeen at Celtic Park [in September], where we had trouble at the end because we were so tired. I hope we’re much better in this one than we were back then [when they were almost pegged back to 2-2 after leading 2-0]. We have to finish stronger.
“I’m more confident going in against Aberdeen on the back of the Internazionale game, instead of going into a game against a St Mirren or a Motherwell because we know this is a very big game and it’s against a team we’ll only beat if we’re at our best. It’s easier to get prepared for Aberdeen and I hope there will be a lot of people in the stadium to give the game the crowd and atmosphere it deserves.”
In Aberdeen, Deila believes Celtic have a Premiership rival worthy of the description. Against Inter, Celtic produced displays that proved Deila is capable of delivering on his fitness-accented, high-tempo, high-pressing approach. He has transformed Celtic domestically with 15 wins, one draw and one defeat from their past 17 Premiership games. Yet, despite that, Aberdeen have remained in their slipstream, the gap only three points with Derek McInnes’s men having played a game more.
“They are in the race not because we’ve been poor – it’s because Aberdeen have been very good,” Deila says. “They’ve improved as a team. When you win so many games in a row, you prove that it’s not luck and that you have consistency and belief. I really hope they finish as the number two side in Scotland at the end of the season.
“Aberdeen beat Gronigen at the start of the season to show their capabilities. They struggled in the league, like ourselves, because of the European games. After a while, they’ve got going and have won a lot of matches. When you work in the right way, you get progress, and Aberdeen have had that.”
The remarkable progress of Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven in their first month at Celtic has created a clamour for them to be integrated into the Scotland national team on a regular basis but Deila sounds a note of caution on that. “They have shown they can play at a high level but they have to show it consistently over time,” he says. “If they do that, we can start talking about them playing in the Scottish national team. It’s like Roy Hodgson said once, you don’t want to be like fireflies who only last for one day. You want stars because they last forever.”