Scottish champions find it hard to rise to Europe’s challenges
19 August ~ Celtic play Malmo tonight in the first leg of the final Champions League qualifying round and the Scottish champions are desperate for a chance to prove themselves against Europe’s elite in the group stage. For the fans, such matches are the perfect antidote to what has been an infamously predictable domestic league. Players such as Dedryck Boyata were attracted to the club by the opportunity to play in the competition. And playing in the group stages can boost Celtic’s annual income by about a third, while also earning other Scottish top-flight clubs a handy solidarity payment.
Malmo are currently fifth in the Swedish league, and Celtic have improved significantly since they failed spectacularly at the same stage a year ago when new manager Ronny Deila had just arrived, but it won’t be easy for tonight’s hosts. It doesn’t help that Malmo are in the middle of their season, but the real issues are with Celtic’s consistency.
While they combine strength and creativity in midfield, it’s not clear who should start up front. Deila has favoured new signing Nadir Ciftci as a lone striker in Europe so far. Ciftci holds the ball up well, which was key in a nervy 1-0 aggregate win over Qarabag from Azerbaijan in the previous round, but he hasn’t scored in any of his first four games in green and white, all of which have been in Europe because he’s suspended in Scotland. Most fans would rather see the more creative Leigh Griffiths playing, but Deila doesn’t seem convinced that he’s suited to the lone striker role in Europe.
Meanwhile, centre-backs Boyata and Virgil van Dijk are clearly talented but, at 24, neither is the finished article and both are caught out of position too often, as is attack-minded left-back Emilio Izaguirre. In each of their last two league games, against Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Kilmarnock, Celtic have conceded twice. In most domestic games, they create many chances and only convert a few.
In recent years, Celtic haven’t been significantly punished in Scotland for such profligacy and defensive carelessness. Europe is very different. Assistant manager John Collins was characteristically frank recently when he tried to convey the challenges of competing at two very different levels. He said: "Sometimes, we switch off and think it doesn’t really matter, because they (other Scottish teams) aren’t going to punish us. If you become open and detached from each other against good players and good teams, you’ll be punished. No disrespect to the other Scottish teams, but they’re not clever enough players or quick enough players to punish us.”
Understandably, Collins’ comments were criticised by many people in the Scottish game, including Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes and Dundee manager Paul Hartley, while Kilmarnock used them as inspiration to draw with Celtic. But they illustrated clearly the challenge that Celtic face. If the Champions League anthem is to be played regularly at Celtic Park this season, they’ll need more discipline, focus and concentration against Malmo. There’s a lot at stake, and it’s finely balanced. Both matches should be exactly the sort of dramatic nights the fans crave more of. Mark Poole