Celtic can blossom with some turf love in Austria

TWELVE months ago, Celtic lost all four of their pre-season matches played in Germany and Austria.

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Emilio Izaguirre attempts to prevent No.2 John Collins gaining possession
Emilio Izaguirre attempts to prevent No.2 John Collins gaining possession

This time around, under new boss Ronny Deila, they remain unbeaten at the midway point of their preparations, the 1-1 draw with Rapid Vienna coming hard on the heels of their opening 3-1 win over Kuban Krasnodar.

Of course, results at this stage of proceedings count for nothing. And, as Deila and his Bhoys get ready to face LSK Linz tonight in the penultimate game of their build-up, no-one in the group has lost sight of the fact what really counts is what happens a week today when they run out against KR Reykjavik in the first leg of their opening Champions League qualifying programme.

The six ties which stand between them and the group stage will make or break the season - and no-one is more aware of that than new man, Deila.

He is already starting to up the ante by demanding his players give more than they were willing to produce against Rapid.

The lack of energy shown upset the manager, and this message has been hammered home to his players.

The reaction will be seen tonight. And, for anyone with aspirations of lining up in the first competitive game of the campaign, it had better be positive.

The managers may change, but the mantra remains the same.

It is performances rather than results in pre-season games that matter most, though all those defeats last term - 1-0 to Sevastopol, 2-1 to CFR Cluj, 6-2 to Greuther Furth and 3-0 to Union Berlin - did give cause for concern to some fans watching from afar.

Neil Lennon watched his Bhoys bounce back from all of this to negotiate their Champions League qualifiers and play-off, then retain their league title.

Deila will be hoping he can replicate that feat, the short-term and long-term priorities for every season.

But, there is no doubt getting a few wins while they improve their match fitness and sharpness puts an extra spring in the step of every player, and helps lift confidence hit hard by the loss of skipper Scott Brown to injury.

Fraser Forster, Craig Gordon and Emilio Izaguirre are now in the camp to bolster quality and numbers, leaving only Efe Ambrose to join the group when they return from their training base after Friday's final game against Dukla Prague.

In the meantime, Charlie Mulgrew is expected to continue as the partner for Virgil van Dijk in the centre of a defence which has been worked hard in both games so far.

With Brown expected to be posted missing for at least the first two Champions League qualifiers, the experience carried by the versatile vice- captain is going to be more important than ever.

It is responsibility the 28-year-old is more than happy to shoulder.

And Mulgrew will attempt to bring his influence to bear again tonight when, once again, it is anticipated Deila will use the vast majority of his squad, including a host of young players only too eager to impress.

Using his own condition as a barometer, Mulgrew is confident the new training methods and heavy schedule of games against opposition of a higher calibre than has previously been met in pre-season is paying dividends.

He said: "Pre-season allows us to get everyone game time and make sure everyone is fit when it comes to competitive matches. It's about improving, getting the fitness up and getting the match sharpness.

"It's amazing how quickly that leaves you, but it comes back just as quickly once you start getting into matches.

"I was happy to get 90 minutes under my belt and I feel better for it."

Mulgrew, Van Dijk and young Filip Twardzik - who has been filling in at left-back until Izaguirre recovers from his exertions with Honduras at the World Cup finals - were the only players to play the full match in the baking heat of Vienna on Sunday.

A mis-timed tackle which brought a booking late in the game was the only indication the Scotland star has not yet regained his timing.

But, at this stage of proceedings, the entire squad looks well on course for the real stuff next week when they will be lining up against a Reykjavik side which is 29 games into their season which kicked off in January.

Mulgrew has been involved in enough pre-seasons to understand it is a gradual process, designed to give them fitness not only for the first few weeks of the campaign, but to sustain them for the 10 months of action which will follow.

The vast majority of the Hoops have enjoyed a longer break than in previous years, due to their season ending on May 11. But all thoughts of beaches and flip flops have now been replaced by training pitches and boots.

The games give them some kind of respite from the intense work being carried out on a daily basis at their training camp in Bad Leonfelden.

Not that Deila will accept any less effort when the matches kick off.

His on-field lieutenant will be cajoling his team-mates to deliver what the manager demands, and is confident they will be in much better shape as a result of the tough workout.

"That's one match further on and we're a bit fitter again," he told the club's official website.

"Pre-season games can be a bit quiet at times, and a bit too much like a friendly.

"But that was good, and it was a good atmosphere, similar to a European-type game.

"It was a tough match, but you have to play it like you're going to play it in the season.

"You need to be as realistic as possible and try to treat it as much like a competitive match as you can, without going over the top, obviously.

"You like playing competitive matches and it helps both teams get ready for the season.

"I was happy with my own performance and, compared to the last match, there were improvements again.

"That's what it's all about for us just now."


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