TWELVE months ago, Scott Brown spent matchday four of the Champions League running an unpleasant relay between his living room sofa and his bathroom.
A sickness bug led to the Celtic captain being quarantined from his team-mates and forced him to miss one of the most epic nights in the club’s history as they defeated Barcelona 2-1 at Parkhead to set themselves on course for the last 16 of Europe’s elite club competition.
This year, at the same stage of the tournament, Brown will be on the sidelines once more. This time, his absence is of his own making, an injudicious off-the-ball flick of his boot at Brazilian star Neymar during Celtic’s 1-0 home defeat by Barcelona last month earning him a three-match suspension.
Brown’s failure to overturn Uefa’s extended ban means he will simply be a passenger this week as he travels with the Celtic squad for their crucial matchday four Group H fixture against Ajax in the Amsterdam ArenA on Wednesday night.
The famous win over Barcelona last year is the ultimate testimony to Celtic’s capacity for digging out big results without some of their biggest players. In addition to Brown, top scorer at the time Gary Hooper was also unavailable on that occasion.
“I watched that game while shaking and being sick,” said Brown. “Thanks for bringing that back up, because that’s what I was doing that night. I was in the house, because I had to stay away from the rest of the lads so they didn’t catch the bug.
“It’s always tough watching the team, because you just want to be out there. But they managed to get the three points against Barca that night and it was a great win. Hopefully, the team can do the same on Wednesday night. I’ve got faith they can do it.”
Celtic will be facing an Ajax side still smarting from a rare home defeat in the Dutche Eredivisie on Saturday. Valeri Qazaishvili’s last-minute goal in the Amsterdam ArenA gave visitors Vitesse Arnhem a 1-0 victory, a result which leaves the champions trailing in fifth place. A fortnight ago, Israeli midfielder Beram Kayal deputised successfully for Brown in the 2-1 home win over Ajax, scoring the second goal as Celtic secured their first points in Group H and hauled themselves back into contention for a place in the knockout phase of the Champions League.
“Beram did really well, breaking up the play and getting on the ball,” added Brown. “Scoring the goal was great for him and I’m sure he will do well again in Amsterdam. As long as we are winning, it doesn’t matter who plays. It’s a squad game and as long as we do well in Europe, that’s the main thing.
“I’m going over to Amsterdam with the rest of the lads. I’ll be in the dressing room before the game, giving them my support, but I won’t be giving a talk. That’s the gaffer’s job.
“I think they’ve got a great chance of getting a good result. They showed that with the way they played against Ajax at Celtic Park.
“Ajax are renowned for their passing game but our lads managed to get the ball down and play some good stuff. We pressed them high up the park, because we knew they wanted to play football. It’s good to watch but we put teams under pressure, try to make them make mistakes, and it came off really well two weeks ago.
“We have learned how to do that in Europe, how to press teams, get the ball back and keep our shape tactically at the same time. That’s down to every department of the team working hard, both when we’ve got the ball and when we don’t.
“This group was always going to be a test of our character. It couldn’t be anything else when you are playing against teams like Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax. But that’s why we are in the Champions League and it’s why we are Celtic players. These are the games you want in your career.
“We take every game as we go. Ajax is the next one, it’s a huge one and it will be a great contest for the lads. Hopefully they are good enough to get some more points on the board over there. We have pulled off a lot of away wins in Europe in the last two seasons and played really well in a lot of away games.
“I know before that our record away from home in Europe wasn’t the best but, since Neil Lennon has been manager, it has got stronger and stronger. Hopefully we can build on that this week.”
Celtic have generally been able to successfully combine their European commitments with their domestic business this season. But they needed a stoppage-time equaliser by Charlie Mulgrew to spare them a first league defeat of the season against Dundee United at Parkhead on Saturday.
“It’s nothing at all to do with having a Champions League game coming up,” insisted Brown. “It was just a game where Dundee United pressed us, played really well, created chances and will feel unlucky not to win the game.
“But we had a lot of chances and it showed our fighting spirit to score so late in the game. Charlie symbolises that, he is an all-round player who always gives 100 per cent from first minute to last and can either create or score a goal.
“We kept attacking, kept pressing United. We didn’t play at our best but we knew we could create chances and take at least one of them. I think we deserved what we got from the game and maybe even played well enough to get all three points.”