The fall-out from Celtic’s Champions League qualifying tie with Legia Warsaw has been such that what happens next has been virtually forgotten: the Scottish side face Maribor in the play-off round, looking for a place in the group stage for what would be a third season in succession. Given the formality that is Scotland’s top flight, Europe has held a keen significance to Celtic in recent times.
With Legia still wounded from being bundled out of the Champions League for fielding a suspended player despite administering a heavy defeat to Ronny Deila’s team over two legs, Celtic are aiming to make the most of their reprieve. Deila wants to show in Slovenia on Wednesday evening that Celtic have learned from their Polish experience and improved.
For whatever it may be worth, they have scored nine goals and conceded only one in two domestic outings since the Legia tie was, apparently, settled. Maribor have endured a mixed start to their own campaign. “Maribor are probably a similar standard [to Legia] but of course we’re two or three weeks further forward now,” said Deila’s assistant, John Collins. “It’s a step up in level from Scottish football, with no disrespect to the other teams, but that’s the reality so we’ve got to make sure we step up our game again as well.
“They are Slovenian champions. We’ve had them watched a few times but it’s all about our performance. We’ve got to keep it tighter at the back and watch we don’t concede soft goals and, when the chances come along, put them in the back of the net.
“I think you’ve seen from the last couple of games, the players are getting quicker, sharper and more confidence, and we’re scoring goals and keeping it tight at the back. So I think we have moved forward in the last couple of weeks.
“Everybody at the football club knows we’ve got a second chance and that it’s important that we capitalise on that.”
Celtic left Glasgow on Tuesday without the injured Adam Matthews and James Forrest, who have joined their captain, Scott Brown, on the sidelines.
Efe Ambrose was also mistakenly left at home after Celtic wrongly believed the defender was suspended for Wednesday’s tie. The Nigerian will link up with his team-mates in the hours leading up to the game.
“In the beginning there were some communication problems, if he was ready or not,” Deila admitted. “We didn’t think he was ready because he got two matches [as a ban] but in the end it was one match,. So he is coming now and I am very happy because we need defenders.”
Brown is expected to miss one more month while another hamstring problem for Forrest, who has been plagued by such setbacks since bursting into the first team under Neil Lennon, should be of particular concern to the Northern Irishman’s successor.
“I am ever so disappointed for James,” Collins added. “He has worked so hard to get back to match sharpness and everybody saw in the first half against St Johnstone on Saturday what he brings to the team – pace, skill, can beat a man very easily.
“But he’s had these niggling injuries the last couple of years. Fingers crossed, we can get him fitter and stronger and the injuries will become less and less.”
Celtic’s loan capture will be the Ghana winger Wakaso Mubarak, who featured at this summer’s World Cup finals. The 24-year-old will move to Glasgow for the remainder of this season from Rubin Kazan.
“He’s got pace in the wider areas and a good delivery with his left foot, so that’s what we’re looking for – to add pace at the top of the pitch,” Collins said.
The Maribor midfielder Dare Vrsic pointed out his club have their own strong motivations to succeed, both on Wednesday and during next week’s return leg at Celtic Park.
“Maribor have been waiting for the Champions League for 15 years and I believe that we are able to achieve this long-standing desire,” Vrsic said.
“But no with euphoria, just with a cool, strong game.
“We have respect for the opponent, but only until the beginning of the game. Then we will try to beat them.”