Celtic should give their under pressure manager one last run at the Champions League group stage, writes Andrew Smith
A CURIOUS conversation developed among the BT Sport commentary team as Celtic eased their way to victory over St Johnstone last weekend.
As a 3-0 win was clocked up from a, supposedly problematic Perth encounter - which brought a 10th successive win following European exertions, extended their lead at the top of the Premiership and ensured a better record across the opening 17 games of a league campaign than in seven of the previous 10 seasons - the discussion between commentary team Chris Sutton and Derek Rae centred on when it would be best to bag Celtic manager Ronny Deila in the coming months.
Now, it is a fact universally accepted that the Norwegian cannot be judged solely on domestic outcomes. Not when the club’s fiscal advantages make the title a shoe-in. Yet, in the rush to damn Deila for admittedly dreadful defensive displays in Europe this season, one question keep recurring: when was it decided, and by whom, that two seasons failing to make the Champions League became a sacking offence for a Celtic manager?
Deila is the first man occupying the Parkhead post in the club’s history to benefit from having no real competition for the top flight. Equally, though, he is the first to be burdened by that fact when it comes to European football’s blue riband tournament. Conclusions as to whether he is considered to have cut it or proved calamitous are made on the basis of six games in the summer. The pressure is in danger of becoming
When Neil Lennon was guaranteed a first title in his second full season following Rangers’ implosion, no-one cast their minds back back and said: ‘Yeah, the league win’s all very well, but in two summers he hasn’t won a single European qualifier on the field of play”.
The Lennon parallel is admittedly imperfect. For the Deila detractors, though, only insomuch as the Irishman’s side showed clear signs of progress on the continental stage when Sion’s ejection provided them with a Europa League place. Undoubtedly, they acquitted themselves well in a section that contained Atletico Madrid, Udinese and Rennes. The performances against these sides did appear to lay the groundwork for the campaign that claimed them a last 16 place the following year.
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Deila is dismissed because his second season in Europe has witnessed regression. Undoubtedly, helming the first Celtic side to fail to win a game in a group stage has caused the 40-year-old reputational damage. The horrible, hapless home and away defeats to Molde played a huge part in that. Not least because the Norwegians, along with Champions League qualifying stage vanquishers Malmo, in August, and Maribor 12 months earlier, are so modestly resourced in comparison to Celtic.
One of the glimmers of hope, though, has come with the recent signs that Deila might be finally moulding a back four fit for purpose in cross-border games. The performance of central pairing Jozo Simunovic and Dedryck Boyata, along with full-backs Mikael Lustig and Kieran Tierney, in last week’s 1-1 draw against Fenerbahce in Istanbul, suggested Celtic have a backline capable of standing up to a Champions League qualifying campaign.
Indeed, it has been wildly exaggerated as to how deficient Celtic are in respect of returning to European club football’s promised land. A break here or there and they would have made it in each of the past two years.
Those believing a change of football management at Celtic is required question whether there can be confidence in Deila getting it right third - or fourth, in a way, owing to the administrative-error reprieve following the Legia Warsaw lashing - time. As stated by former Celtic striker Scott McDonald last week, the nature of the qualifying route mean the odds would remain in his favour.
Moreover, that concern could be flipped around. No Celtic manager in recent times - a period covering the tenures of Martin O’Neill, Gordon Strachan, Lennon and Deila - has ever made a telling impression in their first season. There may then be as many pitfalls of twisting as sticking for the Celtic board.
Deila has shown an admirable willingness to integrate young Scottish players into his side, and a bold - if at times, potentially, foolhardy - commitment to having an attacking edge to his side’s play on foreign shores. You don’t often read of positive stats to associate with Deila’s sorties in Europe with Celtic but the only two European group campaigns in which the club have scored in every game have been the two he has presided over in his 19 months.
Deila knows his ambitions for Celtic could not survive in the event of Champions League qualification not to being achieved next season. However, he deserves to survive and have the chance to make them come good then.