Potentially season-defining fixtures in July are not meant to be on the agenda at clubs of the scale of Celtic, but for the third consecutive season they face a mid-summer Champions League qualifier.
Tonight’s is against Iceland’s FC Stjarnan. Two years ago, under Neil Lennon, Celtic made it from July to the group stage and met Barcelona, Ajax and Milan. Rather more fresh in the memory, however, is that 12 months ago, under Lennon’s successor Ronny Deila, Celtic eased past KR Rekjavik, only to be thumped 6-1 on aggregate by Legia Warsaw. It was no way to start a new era.
Legia were subsequently expelled by Uefa for fielding an ineligible player – for four minutes – but Celtic then wasted their reprieve by losing to Slovenia’s NK Maribor. By September, Celtic were playing in the Europa League.
Deila had just walked through the Parkhead doors after the club had spent four years under the stewardship of Lennon and he understandably refers to that period as “transitional”.
One year on, the 39-year-old Norwegian is determined there will be no Legia-Maribor repeat against the Icelandic champions, though Deila concedes that his desire is driven as much by the angst of last summer as the certainty that Celtic are the better team.
“There is a fear attached to these qualifying games,” he says. “You always have a fear of losing, you hate losing. When I think back to that, though [last summer], we were just not good enough. Now we are in another place from where we were one year ago. I think we are good enough.”
Part of Deila’s optimism stems from the improvement Celtic made as last season progressed – their Europa League campaign only ended when Internazionale scored an 88th-minute winner in February. There is also Deila’s year’s experience in Glasgow and, of course, new signings. Celtic have made four since last season brought them a fourth consecutive Scottish title, 17 points ahead of Aberdeen.
Nadir Ciftci, who played for Portsmouth in the Championship as a teenager, has become the third signing from Dundee United in six months. Last Friday, he set up Gary Mackay-Steven – another of the “Tannadice Three” – to score the only goal against David Moyes’ Real Sociedad. Ciftci has baggage. He is facing a Scottish FA hearing after allegedly biting Dundee’s Jim McAlister on the final day of last season but has still been given the Celtic No 7 shirt, which should inspire.
If he starts, Ciftci will be expected to score the goals that give Celtic a comfortable lead to take to Iceland next Wednesday.
While Celtic start as heavy favourites, it should be noted that FC Stjarnan knocked Motherwell out of the Europa League last season and, like their opponents this year, were eliminated at Inter. Like Deila, they, too, are a year more experienced.Reuse content