Eoin Coyle gives his opinion on Celtic’s devastating defeat to Malmo in the Champions League, where now for the Hoops and Ronny Deila?
Celtic Park on a Champions League night is often put forward as one of the unique selling points of the club; this is Celtic at its very best. Packed house, white hot atmosphere and deafening noise, one of the quintessential football fan experiences. Alternately, last night showed there’s also the more typical Celtic ‘European Experience’ though which is an altogether more sobering experience and a lot harder to market. This article was originally going to be a ‘best number 10’ but after watching Celtic’s latest Champions League implosion any attempt to write/vent about anything else was an exercise in futility.
The 10-minute, two-goal blitz in the first leg seemed a lifetime ago in Sweden last night as Celtic toiled to a 2-0 loss that in no way flattered a Malmo side who were hungrier, sharper and simply better. Ronny Deila endured a difficult start to his Celtic tenure before really picking up a head of steam with a great mid season run and the personality cult that grew with it. By the end of the season he had two trophies in the bag and there was a general feelgood factor back about the club.
Europa League Nights
Maribor came around last season at a time when everything was still pretty much at the embryonic stage but that’s not really something that can be stood up as an excuse this time around. The players are well versed in the system and the new additions were, one would hope, players the manager actually wanted and most were aquired early enough to bed them in for these crucial early season qualifiers. The pre-season had been geared towards having the team fit and ready to go for these games. In terms of preparation and personnel the difference between this year’s efforts and the Maribor tie was apparently night and day yet the end result was the same. A bight start, hope, implosion, failure.
Unfortunately for the marketing team at Celtic ‘Europa League Nights at Celtic Park’ don’t quite hold the same alure – not even for Celtic fans – if last season was anything to go by it just means three more home games where the top tier of the stadium will be closed. Even more unfortunate for everyone in suits at Celtic, it means no Champions League revenue again so the chances of a high profile signing or two to soften the blow are remote. This comes with the added caveat that Virgil Van Dijk will probably be already gone by the time I finish typing this sentence, bundled into the back of a waiting car by Southampton officials on the runway at Glasgow International. So in one night, and with one defeat, we have lost a small fortune, our best player (ok I know he was going anyway but indulge my moaning) and scuppered any funds for new signings. As an act of self-sabotage it would be a thing of beauty but it’s not what you want from the club you support.
It does seem unfair that such an important game comes so early every season but those are the breaks for clubs in smaller leagues with miniscule TV revenue to draw from and equally meagre prize money for domestic competitions. Maybe for Celtic there was too much riding on the game, Deila admitted post match that the players looked ‘scared’ a worrying but refershingly honest assesment, Scott Brown was equally honest in his post match comments. On a night where credit is in short supply for the players and manager they should be commended at least for being honest and holding their hands up to a bad performance when the penalty/goal that never was would have been an easy excuse to hide behind.
Unable to Handle the Pressure?
So it seems that the occasion was too big for some, again whilst the admissions from the manager and captain were refreshing and honest they were also slightly worrying. The term ‘big game bottlers’ is going to rear its head again and yes, in a certain context, every Celtic game is a big game but in another, more true context, these games are the actual real big games and once again we’ve come up short against an opponent that many felt would be beatable; no Play-Off round game is ever easy but as far as draws go Maribor and Malmo are not the types of names that would typically strike mortal fear into the hearts of Celtic fans.
If the players did not deal with the occasion well then questions also remain about team-selection and general levels of performance in European games; the domain of the management. This is a tougher one to tackle as you can only hold the man on the bench responsible to a point. Nir Bitton’s chucking in the towel and loss of discipline can’t be ‘managed’ when the game is in progress, nor can Stefan Johansen’s reckless abandon of his position on numerous occasions. The manager places trust in the players and some of them let him down badly in Malmo when it really mattered most.
What Deila himself could have avoided was exposing Charlie Mulgrew to a pacey opponent in playing him at left back. Charlie Mulgrew at left back is like crossing the streams in Ghostbusters – it should never be done. Mulgrew has great qualities as a player but is way too slow to be pitted against a winger of even adequte pace and trickery. It was the wrong choice on the night but only a contributory element to what was a poor team performance. ‘Nobody wanted the ball’ was another stark admission, Brown and Bitton showed none of their usual composure and calm and Johansen was erratic and wasteful in possession, showing none of the drive he is known for. In short, we looked terrified of the occasion and bereft of ideas once we had to chase the game.
Taking a beating off a really good side is one thing; regularly struggling like Celtic have in the last two years against any kind of competent opposition not from Scotland is an entirely different, more depressing affair. It means it may be time for us to manage our ambitions again, because looking at teams like Malmo and Maribor and thinking ‘yea we’ll have them’ is indicative of us vastly overrating the quality of the side we have in front of us. Every year we fail is another year in that ‘slow lane’ Martin O’Neill spoke of some years ago. The danger is the slow lane becomes the norm, you never raise your hopes above that glass ceiling because you know the players we have are not good enough and the ones that are good enough will never be here long enough to build a team around.
What lies ahead now for the season? It is hard to know, everyone will hurt on this for a while and you can bet the Scottish press will really gorge themselves on the carcass of this one, expect cracked crests and prophecies of doom. At present it is admittedly difficult to get too excited about what is to come. We will (probably) win the league and there will be European football, in the loosest term, at Celtic Park this season but considering what we could have had and what we all wanted and the fact we had it in our hands it all seems rather unappealing and empty right now.
If anything, we can hope that lessons are learned from this and perhaps a new approach can be perfected over the course of the Europa League campaign, so that next year we won’t have to endure the current inescapable feeling that the season is dead before it really started.