A precarious first leg lead in the qualification rounds of the Champions League, as well as a comfortable domestic victory, means Celtic look like they have picked up from where they left off from last season. CRAIG CAIRNS assesses their side going into the new campaign.
It’s difficult to describe Celtic’s season in a few paragraphs. Overall, their European exploits were disappointing, especially their failure to make the Champions League, that despite being reinstated after defeat to Legia Warsaw.
But then Ronny Deila was just in the door and had barely made his mark on the side. Media hysteria about the Norwegian ensued but come the end of the season, when his team resembled something more in his image, it was not unreasonable to suggest that a Josh Meekings handball in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup denied them a real shot at the treble. That would, of course, be a bit disrespectful to both eventual finalists, as well as the performance of Inverness that day. However, the team had by then gathered momentum which continued to the end of the season and into this one – Celtic are unbeaten over 90 minutes since March 4th, winning 12 and drawing four (including that semi final).
Celtic started slowly in the league and were pushed by Aberdeen for much of the way. One of the deciding factors in the end was their head-to-head results. Celtic dominated the fixture, winning all four, including their November clash at Pittodrie which was at the time sensed as a turning point in their season and the fan-manager relationship. Virgil van Dijk bundled in a last-minute winner and the cringe-inducing Ronny Roar was born.
The big transfer story surrounding the club over the summer is the future of Van Dijk. Jason Denayer has returned to his parent club to be replaced by compatriot Dedryck Boyata. The quality of Van Dijk would be much more difficult to replace. Deila is adamant that he will be around for the Champions League qualifiers but, given the interest in the player and his response to speculation last season, it’s difficult to see him at Celtic beyond the end of the current transfer window.
Almost as many pages were devoted to the speculation and eventual signing of Nadir Çiftçi. He has already started as the lone striker in Celtic’s European matches, despite the form of Leigh Griffiths, as he serves his six-game domestic suspension.
Logan Bailly has been added as back up to Craig Gordan while full-back Saidy Janko joins from Manchester United. The 19-year-old and can also play on the wing but just how much he is used this season remains to be seen. Adam Matthews may have left for Sunderland but it appears that Mikael Lustig, Efe Ambrose, and possibly even Darnell Fisher, are ahead of Janko in the pecking order.
The only other player of note to leave is John Guidetti, whose loan also expired. Guidetti was on fire for a spell last season but struggled in front of goal from December onwards. Griffiths claimed his starting place in that time, while Çiftçi has since been added. Deila may add one or two more, but the business he’s done up until now means they should have enough to reach the group stages of the Champions League.
Ronny Deila sought to radically change the ethos at Celtic until he was met with criticism for not getting instant results and, bizarrely, for trying to encourage his players to eat better. Just because Owen Coyle used to have a fish supper and a can of IRN-BRU every Friday night in the 90s, doesn’t mean it’s something we should be encouraging now. Slowly Deila’s methods began to take hold and his high-pressing, energetic side eventually climbed the league, winning it comfortably, and came within a few matches of becoming just the third Celtic manager to win a treble.
It is, however, in Europe that he was unsuccessful, failing to progress from the group stage of the Europa League as well as his failure in the Champions League preliminary stages. The group stages of the Champions League are expected this time.
Deila wants all his players to contribute to the attack. 16 goals were scored by his centre-half pairing last season and Boyata, after four matches, has scored his first two goals for the club. As well as goals, defenders contributed 16 assists in the 50 goals scored between January and the end of the season.
In the transfer market last season, Deila signed a few duds on loan but struck gold with Denayer and the signing of Craig Gordon, who recaptured some of his the form he displayed before his plague of injuries. His business in January gave the squad the perfect injection needed to take them up a level, while players like Nir Bitton and Stefan Johansen progressed to become two of the team’s standout performers.
Stefan Johansen is emblematic of the change at Celtic under Deila. Coincidentally signed from Strømsgodset by previous manager Neil Lennon, months before Deila was appointed from the same club, Johansen has gone from a promising, deep-lying playmaker to a more advanced one and is vital to the team’s approach.
Double figures for both goals and assist in the league alone last season, as well as a strong start to the European and domestic campaigns, suggests he will again be the one of the key components of Deila’s side. His intelligence and combination of finishing, passing and movement is unmatched in Scotland and won him the 2014/15 Player of the Year award. Another season like that and he won’t be around for long.
Five Ways Celtic Could Use Nadir Çiftçi
The arrival of the 23-year-old means that Celtic have now purchased 25 (43%) of Dundee United’s 58 league goals from last season, but how will Deila use the temperamental Turk?
1. Lone striker
Çiftçi has started the European ties in this position and performed it for the majority of his time at Dundee United. He missed a great chance at home to Stjarnan, but this should be no surprise given his suspect scoring record from open play in the second half of last season. Even when leading the line, Çiftçi’s play is centred more around linking play than poaching goals.
2. Part of the attacking trident behind the striker
He played here occasionally for Dundee United, more so towards the start of his time in Scotland, and was moved into the central position when Griffiths was brought on at home to Stjarnan. He has the creative ability to play in one of these positions and and Deila has been known to use a secondary striker in one of his wide positions.
3. Impact sub
Deila may have recruited Çiftçi with the intention of making him part of his starting eleven but not everyone walks into to Celtic and becomes regular. If he finds himself omitted, his explosive qualities may make him perfect for coming on later in matches.
4. Used in matches against tight defences
It may be that Griffiths is used against the sides that are likely to play a higher defensive line, while Çiftçi is used to unlock tight, ten-man defences. He’s quick with his feet and can shoot from anywhere.
5. Visiting children in hospital while he’s suspended
Let’s face it, the six match suspension for biting is not going to be the last suspension Çiftçi receives in a Celtic shirt. This will make him the perfect candidate for visiting sick children in hospital and maintaining the club’s standing in the community.
Do I really need to justify this?