Saturday 17 March 2018

Celtic determined to take up chance of Champions League redemption

Celtic striker Anthony Stokes is looking to end his long run without a goal in European competition. Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Celtic striker Anthony Stokes is looking to end his long run without a goal in European competition. Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Roddy Forsyth

Quite a few of those connected with Celtic felt homicidal in Warsaw as the team fell to a 4-1 defeat en route to a record European aggregate drubbing at the hands of Legia - but the only person who thought he might have gone even further was the Hoops' newly installed manager, Ronny Deila.

There was to be a wholly unexpected reprieve when Legia were turfed out of the Champions League qualifiers because they had briefly fielded an ineligible player in the second leg, a turn of fortune that has not dimmed Deila's recollection of his reaction to the traumatic night in the Polish capital.

"I got some sleep, but I woke up pretty early. I felt as if I'd killed someone when I woke up," the Norwegian said. "It took me one day and then I realised I had to move forward. The first day was very hard but you have to admit what level you are at. On that day we were at that level and we had to work from there."

Deila, who will supervise his reinstated Celtic players in the Champions League play-off first leg in Maribor this evening, confessed that the constant and intense pressure on a Parkhead manager posed him a daunting challenge, eased somewhat by the 6-1 weekend thrashing of Dundee United at home.


"I know where we are going and I know how we are going to improve. Now we have a chance to see how far we have improved in 14 days. I am confident that we are going to reach the right level as we showed on Saturday.

"It was a very difficult position to be in. I had only been at the club for four weeks and we had been pushed into it, but you learn quick in this job. I also felt tired after the game because I think I had maybe pushed myself too much.

"I feel very different right now. I had done a lot of work and a lot of travelling and I didn't know many people. Now I know my team, I have got my head up and I have control of the situation.

"I think we are in a good mood in the group. They are training well and they have responded fantastically. Everyone is doing everything they can to improve every day.

"I didn't feel anything when I was told we could be back in (the tournament). My focus is always on football. It's about performances, whether you get the chance or not.

"We have got a second chance and we will do everything to take it. The first time I heard we were back in was from the press. Yes, I made mistakes in Warsaw. What were they? We'll see."

The vagaries of the qualifiers mean that Maribor are seeded lower than Legia - who have been packed off to meet Aktobe of Kazakhstan in the Europa League qualifiers - and, although Deila rates the Slovenians as on a par with the Polish side, they are fifth in their league and have conceded seven goals in their last four competitive matches, including a 3-1 weekend defeat by Celje.

Having been derided by the aggrieved Legia management as Champions League points fodder at best, Celtic need to restore credibility as they attempt to reach the group stage for the third season in succession.

The emphatic win against Dundee United was cited by Anthony Stokes as evidence that, after an inevitable period of adjustment to a new coach, the players are now working in harness.

"A lot of aspects the gaffer has tried to introduce in the past few weeks clicked and I hope that is the start of us improving this season and really getting our act together," Stokes said.

"One of the major things is pressing high up the pitch and we really ground them down. Our work-rate was good, we moved the ball quickly and we looked sharper. Training is shorter, but more intense. It is geared to being as intense as possible through the 90 minutes of a game.

"It was easier against United with Calum McGregor, Jo Berget and Kris Commons getting closer to me, and I had lots of options on the ball. I felt comfortable in the formation and we interchanged. He (Deila) has his ways and it's coming together."

If Stokes is to contribute by scoring he will have to overcome a record which has not seen him score in Europe since a Europa League tie against Rennes in 2011 - a total of 20 appearances without a goal.

"I'll take doing as well as I did last weekend and not scoring, so long as we get a result," the striker said.

Celtic suffered mortification against Legia. The tie tonight in the Ljudski vrt (People's Garden) - where a section of the ground will be closed because of the misbehaviour of Maribor's right-wing Ultras - offers a chance of redemption. Deila now knows that, with the group stage at stake, he requires improvement without exception. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Maribor v Celtic, Live, Sky Sports 5, 7.45pm

Irish Independent

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