Celtic’s season is only a few weeks old but in one sense it is already over. In an unabashed one-horse race of a Scottish Premiership, the new manager Ronny Deila was always going to be defined by his European exploits. Until next season at least, he will now be known as the man who was given a second chance in the Champions League and blew it.
Deila should not shoulder sole blame for the way Celtic dropped into Friday’s Europa League draw with a 1-0 home defeat to Maribor. His players, racked with jitters and hesitancy, appeared almost burdened by the 1-1 draw secured in the first leg last week, as if every player in green and white was unsure of whether to stick or twist. Deila asked for a “clever” performance but what he got was a decidedly dull one.
Celtic Park is a venue that normally thrives under glittering lights of the Champions League, and yet every rendition of Depeche Mode’s Just Can’t Get Enough – the club’s modern anthem – and display of the Huddle – Celtic’s variation of the Poznan – masked a nervousness that bubbled to the surface with every misplaced pass or ill-judged foul.
Marcos Tavares’s goal 15 minutes from time somewhat summed up Celtic’s performance. Slack defensive play presented the striker with the one chance he needed to beat Craig Gordon, looping the ball into net after a scramble in the box.
“I expected them to come stronger,” said the Maribor coach Ante Simundza. Indeed, the charge – the kind which saw Celtic overturn a similarly foreboding situation against Shakhter Karagandy last year – never materialised. Even the introduction of Kris Commons at the interval failed to spark their attack into life.
Callum McGregor – playing in front of the watching Gordon Strachan, who handed him his first Scotland call-up on Monday – will rue one particular opportunity, which saw him hit the crossbar after a cut-back from Anthony Stokes. The body blow, jabbed in by Tavares, was struck 20 minutes later.
Efe Ambrose came close to making amends for a generally calamitous display, sending a header past a post as the home side looked to give themselves another 30 minutes. Virgil van Dijk slammed a volley into the body of the keeper in stoppage time in what was Celtic’s last, and probably best, opportunity. After the bureaucratic reprieve of Legia Warsaw, Celtic’s Champions League hopes were this time ended by a straightforward defeat.
“We weren’t good enough to go the Champions League,” said a dejected Deila, confessing that Celtic are no better than a Europa League team. “We’ve had two chances and we didn’t take them. There are no excuses. Hopefully we can stand in the same position next season and we will take this feeling into those games.”
Accusations of downsizing with now be angled at the Celtic hierarchy, given the way top-level talent has been siphoned out of the club over the past year. Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama were replaced on the cheap, with primary managerial targets spurning the advances of the club following Neil Lennon’s resignation in May. Fans held aloft a banner proclaiming “Back the team, sack the board” at the league opener against St Johnstone, and that sentiment will only be further stressed.
“The club wants to invest in the team,” Deila said when asked how Celtic’s failure to qualify for the Champions League would affect their transfer market activity, “but it’s important that we do it in the right way. We have to build now.”