SURPRISINGLY for a firmly established international footballer, Mikael Lustig will take part in the first cup final of his senior career this weekend.
For the 26-year-old Celtic defender, the prospect of playing at Hampden in the William Hill Scottish Cup final is exciting enough in its own right. So to have the chance of playing in his club’s first double-winning side for six years is a significant added bonus.
The Swedish international joined Celtic from another club used to dominating their own domestic scene, record-breaking Norwegian title winners Rosenborg. But cup glory eluded him at the Trondheim club when they suffered a shock semi-final loss to underdogs Follo in the 2010 semi-finals.
“We won the league at Rosenborg that year but then lost in the semi-final,” said Lustig. “I have never even played in a cup final before, so as well as being huge for the club this Sunday, it is also massive for me on a personal level.
“It would be incredible to win the double. I know it is difficult to win both the league and the cup in the same season in any country and it is something Celtic haven’t managed to do for a while.
“It will be a great atmosphere at Hampden, the stadium will be full and, as a footballer, you want to enjoy these occasions.”
Lustig played in Celtic’s Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Hearts last season and also in the Hampden loss to St Mirren at the same stage of the League Cup earlier this year. But he is hopeful that a triumph over Hibs this weekend can silence those who point to Celtic’s relatively poor record at the national stadium in recent times.
“We haven’t really spoken that much among ourselves about our record at Hampden in these big games,” added Lustig. “We had a really big game in the semi-final last month against Dundee United and we proved we could handle the occasion that day by beating them in extra time.
“The players know we have struggled at Hampden in the past, so it’s up to us now to push on and prove we can win this. I’ve only played three games at Hampden, so I don’t know if it’s the size of the arena, the pitch or whatever. But we have beaten Dundee United there and I hope if we beat Hibs, people will stop talking about this.”
Celtic have had a five-week wait for the Scottish Cup final since clinching their second successive SPL title and Lustig says they are now firmly focused on what they anticipate will be a testing assignment. “The final has been a long time coming for us,” he said. “We won the league a while back and we have been waiting for this game. We always knew the last game of the season would be this final so it’s always been in our heads.
“There is always pressure at Celtic. But maybe more so this time because everyone expects us to win. Much has been made of Hibs’ record in this competition. But we have already lost to Hibs once this season in the league, so we know how difficult a game this is going to be. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain and that makes it a really tough game for us.”
Lustig is aware that Hibs are seeking atonement for last year’s 5-1 drubbing by Hearts in the final and believes Celtic could take advantage of any psychological vulnerability that has left in the Easter Road ranks.
“What happened last season could work two ways,” he added. “Hibs may well be p****d off and fired up by what happened against Hearts, or it might still play on their minds. I don’t know how many of their players were involved at Hampden last year. When you lose a final it’s always tough but, of course, they lost to their biggest rivals. They may come with a point to prove and if they win, they may say it was because of what happened last season.
“We need to stay focused and I think an early goal would help us. It would settle us and it may put some doubt into their minds. There’s a lot of psychology in football and we will have to make sure we are prepared mentally for the game.”
Celtic will be without suspended midfield pair Victor Wanyama and Beram Kayal but Lustig believes their loss is compensated for by the return to action of captain Scott Brown following a three-month injury lay-off. “Hopefully losing Victor and Beram won’t hurt us too badly,” he said. “We have played some games already this season without Victor. We have played big games without him and still managed to win.
“He will be a big loss for us because he is a really good player. But we have Scott back and that is really important for us because he is captain of the club. He is such an important player for Celtic.”
Lustig will be paying special attention to Hibs’ key man Leigh Griffiths. Unlike his manager Neil Lennon, the Swede believes Scotland’s Player of the Year would have a chance of earning a place in the Celtic starting line-up.
“I think Leigh probably would get into our team,” said Lustig. “He is a really special player. In the match that we lost to Hibs 1-0 at Easter Road in December, he scored the goal so we know he is an important player for Hibs. He is very quick and there’s a lot of running in him. He’s got a very good left foot and he’ll shoot from distance.
“Leigh is a terrific player but Hibs have other players who can hurt you too. We won’t just be going out there to focus on Leigh. But we will need to stay very focused on him at the back and try to keep him quiet on Sunday.”