Celtic boss Ronny Deila’s future may hinge on winning two games against Norwegian underdogs – an irony given how he started his managerial career.
Deila arrived with a reputation for getting the best out of underdogs, having unexpectedly led Stromsgodet to the Norwegian title in 2013. Now Celtic face Molde FK in a Europa League double header on October 23 and November 6, with the results pivotal to deciding the Glasgow side’s European fate this season.
If the results do not go well, the Norwegian boss may soon pay the price for failing to live up to Neil Lennon’s achievements as the club’s business model of identifying young players, building a team, and then selling them on at a profit may be reaching the end of its life cycle.
The business model has its associations with the start of Lennon’s spell as Celtic manager in 2010. Lennon was pressed into service after the disastrous nine-month reign of Tony Mowbray ended in March of that year. Lennon made an immediate impact in the Scottish Premier League (SPL), reeling off eight successive victories to end the campaign but also had to endure the humiliation of a 2-0 Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to Ross County.
However, in his first summer, Lennon brought in 11 new faces, including striker Gary Hooper, goalkeeper Fraser Forster (on loan) and midfielder Joe Ledley.
Lennon’s first taste of Europe was excruciating. In 2010, his new-look team lost 3-1 on aggregate to Portuguese side Braga in a Champions League qualifier before crashing out to Utrecht in a Europa League qualifier. A 2-0 lead from the home leg was squandered as the Celts capitulated 4-0 in the Netherlands.
But the Bhoys were further strengthened by, in particular, the arrivals of attacking midfielder Kris Commons and defensive midfielder Victor Wanyama in 2011. These two, in addition to Hooper, Forster and Ledley, would be key figures as Celtic went from SPL and European also-rans in 2010 to SPL champions in 2012 and Champions League last 16 contestants in 2013. Only Commons, now 32, remains as the other four have moved on at a profit.
Deila’s briefing was apparently to work within the club’s policy of developing young players. But for the Norwegian, in contrast to Lennon, progress has been painfully slow. However, with a lack of serious investment in the team, it is difficult to see what he might have done better.
Unlike Lennon, he was given little to spend when he arrived – the only signing of note being striker Stefan Scepovic, bought from £2.3million from Getafe.
Five players came in on loan deals and a chance was taken on former Scotland goalkeeper Craig Gordon, who had been injured for two years.
Like Lennon, early experience in Europe was humiliating. In summer 2014, Celtic suffered a 6-1 aggregate defeat from Legia Warsaw in a Champions League qualifier, only to be given a reprieve as Legia were penalised for fielding an ineligible player. Further embarrassment followed, however, as the Bhoys returned from Slovenia with a 1-1 draw in the Champions League play-off round but contrived to lose 1-0 at home to Maribor.
Unlike Lennon, Deila’s Celtic parachuted into the Europa League and some mixed performances saw them emerge from a group featuring Salzburg, Dinamo Zagreb and FC Astra.
Midfielders Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven arrived from Dundee United in January as Deila sought to bolster the squad
A battling 3-3 draw at home to Inter Milan, featuring a double from Armstrong, in the last 16 of the Europa League was one of the highlights of the season as it looked like Deila’s side may finally be making progress. Only a late Inter strike in Milan against the 10-man Celts killed the tie.
After a poor start to the campaign, Deila’s men took the SPL and the League Cup, and were arguably denied a domestic treble by an extremely controversial refereeing decision in the Scottish Cup semi final.
With two trophies and a significantly better second half of the season, the fans were fully behind their boss at the end of May. The ‘Ronny Roar’ celebration became a highlight of matches as the manager joined the fans in hailing key victories.
However, while Lennon’s many successful signings from 2010-11 stayed on to form the core of the team for another two or three years, only loan defender Jason Denayer and Gordon were success stories from Deila’s first summer. Scepovic did not work out and he has moved back to Spain.
With Denayer’s loan deal not being extended, and mid-season signings Armstrong and Mackay Steven featuring intermittently, Deila has had to rebuild a year later than Lennon.
Champions League qualification, however, remains the club’s number one priority. There was sympathy for the lack of preparation time in 2014 but this year the team came up short despite a golden opportunity.
Deila’s side eased past Iceland’s FC Stjarnan and struggled past Azerbaijan’s FC Qaarabag 1-0 on aggregate in the qualifying rounds. The play-off draw handed them a tie against Sweden’s Malmo FC. Having beaten Swedish sides in two of their previous three qualifying campaigns, the Bhoys had recent history on their side.
But Celtic blew it. After taking a 2-0 lead within 10 minutes of the first leg at home, they contrived to concede two goals for a 3-2 victory and a listless performance in Sweden saw them lose 2-0.
For the first time in a while, serious questions were being asked of Deila. This is exactly the kind of game he was brought in to win, but confidence in the manager has been shaken by this defeat.
The side’s biggest asset, defender Virgil Van Dijk , would soon leave for Southampton for a reported £11.5million, replaced by the incoming Jozo Simunovic, a 21-year-old Croatian, who cost the club approximately £3.5million. Deila has made the shaky defence a priority with the captures of Derdyck Boyata, Saidy Janko and Tyler Blackett (on loan from Manchester United)
Now, at the beginning of October, Celtic stand just one point behind Aberdeen at the top of the SPL. They are three points better off than they were after 10 games last season and have just beaten Hamilton 2-1 away. At the same time last year, they lost 1-0 to the same opponents at home.
However, such incremental improvements are not enough to keep Deila in a job. Given Celtic’s vastly superior resources, they are expected to run away with the league every year. Anything less will be seen as a failure.
Assuming domestic dominance continues, it is in Europe that Deila will be judged. In a tough Europa League group this season, Celtic haven’t performed badly in 2-2 draws away to Ajax and at home to wealthy Fenerbahce. But they have let winning positions slip in both games due to defensive errors.
Given the nature of the opponents, Hoops fans have been forgiving so far. Two victories against Molde FK could put Deila back on a pedestal. But anything less may see a winter of discontent ahead for the young Norwegian.
It is time for him to prove himself as the manager who gets the best out of a limited group of players. Erling Moe, the Molde FK manager has been making a good job of that so far – Deila must prove that he can do better.