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Champions have to be streetwise to escape wilderness

KEFLAVIK Airport in Iceland was busy enough at 2pm on a summer's day yesterday but no-one was likely to mistake it for Heathrow or LaGuardia.

Kris Commons and Ronny Deila insist that Celtic will not be complacent in one of the outposts of European football. Picture: SNS
Kris Commons and Ronny Deila insist that Celtic will not be complacent in one of the outposts of European football. Picture: SNS

Queues were minimal, passengers moved freely and there was the unmissable sense of people going about their business without a fuss.

The 45-minute drive which took Celtic through a treeless landscape into the capital, Reykjavik, was similarly placid. When they trained in the KR-vollur stadium last night they realised it isn't a stadium at all. It holds 1541 fans, has a stand on only one side, and the rest is no better than a public park.

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The challenge a group stage aspirant like Celtic faces when it comes to such an outpost is to not be lulled into the belief that they are on the margins of Europe, even if in terms of basic geography that may be true. Iceland's best football team, KR Reykjavik, could inflict horrendous damage on Scotland's champions if they were to post a startling result over two legs of the Champions League qualifying round.

In what seems like gentle, harmless surroundings Celtic must remain vigilant about the danger posed by an unheralded opponent. The stakes are far too high to permit complacency.

Celtic should win over two legs with something to spare, and may even put the contest to bed with a convincing first leg result tonight. That would allow them a restful introduction to playing European home games at Murrayfield in the second leg next Tuesday night. Ronny Deila's first test has arrived, his first competitive game after 39 days in the job.

He must maintain the level of professionalism that Celtic generally brought to these sort of hurdles in the past two seasons under his predecessor, Neil Lennon.

The last two campaigns brought qualification for the Champions League group stages after five teams were successfully negotiated.

Ten games, eight wins, one draw, one defeat is an impressive record even if the one defeat took Celtic perilously close to toppling into the abyss last season. Having lost 2-0 away to Shakter Karagandy it took an almighty, draining effort to reverse that and win 3-0 in the home leg. There were some ashen faces around Parkhead that night.

KR Reykjavik, champions last year and currently third in the Icelandic league after 11 games, do not seem capable of causing the sort of problems Karagandy did, but all will depend on Celtic's focus and approach.

They are without European specialist Georgios Samaras, occasional matchwinner James Forrest and their driving, sometimes inspirational captain, Scott Brown. Only last week Deila questioned and criticised his players' attitude after a draw in a friendly with Rapid Vienna.

Yesterday Kris Commons admitted the players couldn't say for sure exactly how physically ready they are for tonight.

"It's hard to tell how far off 100% we are," he said. "Fitness-wise you feel fine but it's only once you go into competitive games, hostile environments with fans, that you gauge where you are. If we don't at least feel 100% going into the game we might get done."

Commons knows the risks. The players all do. Craig Gordon apart, all of the squad were here last season. Deila is the newcomer and it is safe to assume his past month has included plenty of polite whispers in his ear, just so he is clear about the gravity of the task over what Celtic hope will be six European ties.

The message will have been coming at him from all angles. "Everyone knows how vital these games are, not just for the club but for the whole of Scotland," said Commons. "We know what we're carrying on our shoulders. We have to get in there. Reykjavik are 11 games into their season so they'll have more match-fitness than us.

"But once the whistle goes you put your professional head on and get to where you need to be as soon as possible. In a way, our first game of the season is our most important.

"The players have thought about these qualifiers all summer. Definitely. They either make or break our season.

"We can either have a really good campaign up until December/January time or we're going to be toodling through the season. For a club like Celtic we need to have European football.

"We need those special nights at Celtic Park to keep everyone interested. We have a new manager but in these games we almost have to manage it ourselves because we've been over the course before.

"There are only certain things you can work on in training. We haven't had a lot of time. It's very difficult for us to try and pick up that kind of rhythm that you get 10-15 games into a season, when it comes naturally to you. When you've reached the top and you've had those nights, it's not the same just playing every week in the SPFL.

"You need those Champions League games in between. That gives you the buzz, it's what brings the fans and the money in. Having had that for the last two years, it would be devastating not to have it this time around."

Assistant manager John Collins is of a similar mind, and was excited by the prospect of his first competitive match since returning to the club.

"It is a big test but we are looking forward to it. This is the big one. We want to go there and try to score goals. This is where Celtic want to be, we want to be on the big stage.

"We know we have to take care of this team, it won't be easy, but we are looking forward to it."

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