There is a hope from Brendan Rodgers that the fates have played a hand by landing his team in a Champions League group with Bayern Munich.
The Bundesliga behemoths have a manager to match their status in hugely decorated Carlo Ancelotti. The Celtic manager knows the Italian “reasonably well” from his time at Chelsea. The London club represent one of the 58-year-old’s many silverware stop-offs in a career that has brought him an array of honours at AC Milan, Real Madrid and Stamford Bridge. He also won a title for Paris-Saint Germain, the other high-roller of a club that Celtic will also be facing in the coming months.
Success only really eluded Ancelotti at the turn of the century with Juventus, who jettisoned him after the best he could muster was an Intertoto Cup – only for him to become an Italian master at Milan in a glittering spell. Which was the subject of conversation that Rodgers had with him in a taxi on their way to the League Managers’ Awards in 2011.
“It was a Wednesday night and I was with Swansea and we had the play-off final against Reading on the Monday,” the Celtic manager said. “We were in the taxi and Carlo turned to me and said, ‘You will win on Monday’. And I said, ‘What makes you think that?’ and his reply was, ‘it’s the footballing gods’.
“And I asked what he meant and he said, ‘You’re playing the team that sacked you. So, for sure, you will win. I had the same when I was with AC Milan against Juventus. We were playing them after they had sacked me and I was told we would win because of the footballing gods. And we won’.
“After we got out the taxi I thought, ‘please be right!’ I hope when we meet in the Champions League this time the footballing gods will be telling him it’s Celtic all the way.”
As the football gods tend to be realists, Rodgers is likely to leave disappointed on that front. The Celtic coach is a realist himself. That fact doesn’t mean he will ever steel himself for disappointment, though. Even on occasions such as those ahead in this season’s Champions League, when his nimble team faces up to the heaviest foes in the catchweight contests that await against Bayern and PSG.
Rodgers won’t attempt to sell his players the idea that they can be equals to the core of the Germany World Cup winning team – plus Robert Lewandowski – on the nights they share the pitch with the German champions, or they can go on to become as valuable as £200m Neymar or £166m Klyan Mbappe before the games against PSG. His attempts to guide them to the unexpected will be more nuanced.
“You can’t kid players,” he says. “What you have to do is recognise and acknowledge where they are at as players because that is why they’re there.
“That’s why they are at that level and playing consistently at that level. But what you’re always doing, and what I’ve always said – I make it in my programme notes every game – is create the sense that you are ‘without fear’.
“You have to believe always, that’s always been the trait of teams I’ve always tried to put out. Yep, they are going to have players who are on 200, 250 grand a week, and if you give them time and space they’ll show you that. But, I don’t care what type of player you are, the level you’re at, it’s not nice if you’ve got someone right there for a lot of the game, where you can, and you make it difficult, and be hard to beat, and if you’ve got 11 players like that and a squad that’s fighting and not easily beaten, then you give yourself a chance.
“Of course there is always that apprehension, you are playing against so-called world class players – which a lot of the guys we will play over the course of the Bayern Munich and PSG games will be – but you can make it really, really difficult for them. And there is the spirit that we’ve fostered as well as the level of our game.”
Rodgers admits that, even with his focus on professionalism, there is still room to have that sense of wide-eyed wonder that taking his teams into some of the great footballing ampitheatres induces. He has a special feeling for the Camp Nou, he says, and acknowledges the inspirational qualities of Real Madrid’s Bernabeu. Bayern’s Allianz is one of the modern palaces to the game which he will experience for the first time. The daunting assignments to that venue and PSG’s Parc de Princes will have a signifiance beyond anyone within Celtic ticking these grounds off a “greatest” list, Rodgers maintains, though.
Perhaps with a sideways nod towards those who would question the benefit to Scottish football of Celtic’s £30m-earning participation in world football’s foremost club tournament, he points to a potential country-wide spin-off to Celtic’s participation in the group campaign.
“It is great for us as a nation here to have representation at this level,” Rodgers, the adopted Scot, offered. “With the number of Scottish boys we have in our squad it also helps us develop players. Win, lose or draw that will improve them which for the international team should be great.”