<<Dinamo Zagreb, Europa League Match Day 2, Oct 3rd 2014>>
In a season of transition for the Celtic players I can’t get by the fact that it’s a section of the Celtic fans’ mindset that could do with some transition. Perhaps the issue is that too much has happened since the Tommy Burns era, when turning out to see Celtic at Hampden guaranteed no victory. In the last 10 years alone Celtic have come so far that when a wholesale change is brought about the end point, and not the journey, is the focal point and it clouds one’s perception.
Not so long ago Celtic fans took everything in the written and radio press with a pinch of salt, but since Ronny Deila replaced Neil Lennon there’s been a slow-building anxiety, bordering on resentment, towards the Norwegian; and that is coming from a susceptibility to what is being bandied about from hacks such as Keith Jackson and radio pundit Gordon Dalziel. Stories and other waffle about regime changes around diet and philosophies about being ‘24 hour athletes’ have been regurgitated on the airwaves as criticisms when any sensible fan can see that these can only be positive.
When we have a situation where a headline insinuating that the current Celtic manager thought the Celtic players were so bad that they resembled amateurs under his predecessor, only to read the article and find he said no such thing, Celtic fans need to wake up to the sort of jingoism that is out there.
**For the avoidance of doubt, Deila said of players’ fitness ‘To be professional, for me, is to be a 24-hour athlete. If not then you can go and start working outside football. That’s not so hard. You can be amateur again.’**
Ronny Deila must have been mystified as he found himself in stormy waters with reaction to such methods; ‘there’s too much emphasis on fitness, he should just put out a team that can win,’ some pundits have said – and worrying fans have repeated.
If we grant that this point is fair – managers should put out a side to win, and in rotating the squad, Deila was badly let down during the disappointing Inverness game – the fact is that Celtic have only suffered a single domestic defeat so far. On Friday morning Celtic are still participating in all three domestic competitions, have achieved three wins and a draw in four domestic matches, and are undefeated in the last seven matches in all competitions, including a difficult trip to Austria where a 2-2 draw against Salzburg was an excellent result against the team many considered to be the best in the group.
Another criticism levelled at Deila – that his substitutions are poor – like others are slightly unfair given his short time at Celtic. Going back to the only defeat of the domestic campaign, Deila’s decision to rotate and bring in fringe players such as Dylan McGeough, Filip Twardzik and Teemu Pukki (but start with first team players Efe Ambrose, Charlie Mulgrew, Leigh Griffiths and Kris Commons) has often been the hitherto watershed moment for too many. Ultimately ‘resting’ Stokes, Johansen and McGregor (who all featured in the match) ahead of the fateful Maribor game was too much for some, but it is not a sign of a glaring weakness in Deila’s approach.
Consider the substitution of Kris Commons last night; an excellent first half including excellent awareness to step over the ball and receive a finely weighted pass from Stokes, out pacing the defender, Commons scored the only goal of the game on the 6 minute mark.
Indeed Commons looked promising for the whole of the first half – but badly let down Anthony Stokes in failing to reciprocate his fine pass, when he lashed at a loose ball as Stokes was positioned to make it 2-0. Zagreb’s goalie should have been punished with his sloppy footwork as he put the ball on a plate for Commons to square to Stokes to end his European goal drought. This unfortunate tendency crept into Common’s game in the second half though as his first touch deserted him and he was replaced by Beram Kayal. The Israeli midfielder did a job in shoring up the defence while getting further forward and creating trouble for the Dinamo backline.
This has to go down as a successful substitution for Deila on the night, but it does not stand in isolation as he learns more about his players. Where I will criticise him though is that the time has come for Stefan Johansen to spend some time out of the side. I feel he clearly not following Deila’s tactics and goes from decent to anonymous from week to week, and in the game against Zagreb he was particularly poor.
Our opponents passed the ball well, made good movement and had a composed style about them and away fans thought that Portuguese Wilson Eduardo had surely equalised when he saw a thunderous strike hit Gordon’s crossbar in the first half. As close as it was, it was one of a handful of shots on target as Dinamo were restricted to striking from distance.
All the while though Celtic players were composed and handled the game reasonably well, grinding out the 1-0 victory. For large spells of the game Celtic in the attack would be confronted by 10 Dinamo players behind the ball, only to find they broke very quickly.
There is no denying however that Craig Gordon was the busier of the two goalkeepers, and around the 60th minute mark he was left badly exposed as three of his defenders pursued a ball to the right leaving Zagreb’s striker Brozovic alone and able to get on the end of the resulting cross. Gordon used all of his awareness in making himself big and his right arm shot out to send the strike wide.
Gordon was rightly furious with his defenders, but this instance was one of only two episodes of individual error that blighted an otherwise excellent performance from the back line and goalie.
In reflection the 1-0 defeat of Dinamo was an excellent 3 points and it puts Celtic in the driving seat in group D with back to back games against Astra Ploiesti – the Romanian side that have conceded seven goals in their opening two matches. A clean sweep against Astra would leave Celtic on 10 points, Ronny Deila’s targeted tally for progression. If Salzburg and Dinamo were to draw either of their matches Celtic would surely be home and dry. The challenge remains to win the group and thus avoid the champions league ‘dropouts’.
A section of the ‘naysayers’ have conceded in the wake of 1-1 draws at Dundee and at home to Motherwell, that they would be happy with Ronny Deila’s methods as long as Celtic are winning. Well against Dinamo, as with recent weeks Celtic have won, Ronny has got the substitutions spot on, and much like his predecessors did all too often in the league, is managing to ‘grind out’ the odd win where necessary.
The fact remains that Thursday night was another step along the path of the season – it was one win. Celtic play highflying Hamilton Accies on Sunday where I’m willing to gamble they will win again. It’s time to get behind the team, welcome Super John Guidetti back into the team, and, like the players – back the man in the hot seat.