IT IS little more than a year since Mikael Lustig was agreeing terms with Celtic.
As the Swedish defender basks in the satisfaction of being one of only four players to start all six of the group games that propelled the club to the last 16 of the Champions League, he confesses he didn’t really think such momentous times were immediately ahead when he prepared to leave Rosenborg.
“I couldn’t have imagined this,” the 25-year-old says. “We were 12 or 15 points behind Rangers then. So, this has been dramatic. It has been an amazing year.
“Of course there are bigger clubs than Celtic in the last 16. But we deserve it. When we came to the group stage everyone said that Celtic shouldn’t be here, that we were lucky against Helsingborgs. But now we have qualified with ten points and having beaten Spartak Moscow and Barcelona. [When you think] it is also the first time a Scottish team has picked up more than nine points, well, that says it all about us.”
It says everything about how far Lustig, never mind Celtic, have come in 2012 that he is now being heralded as yet one more gem unearthed by the club. In an injury-afflicted first six months, a period during which he seemed unable to find form whenever his fitness did not desert him, he was being universally written off.
Now it is Celtic who will find themselves counted out for the last 16 and Lustig isn’t prepared to issue counter claims about his club’s chances of becoming the first Scottish team to play in the quarter-finals of world football’s premier club tournament. Neither should he.
There is a 42 per cent chance that Neil Lennon’s side will draw a German side in the first knock-out stage after Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Schalke all proved the premier teams in their sections. Malaga and Juventus, the boyhood team that the Swede followed and where Alessandro del Piero was his “big idol”, could also lie in wait. To illustrate the degree of difficulty in these opponents for Celtic, in their long history of European competition they have never won on German, Spanish or Italian soil. And the 20 December draw pairing them with other group winners in the form Manchester United or Paris Saint-Germain – Lustig’s international team-mate Zlatan Ibrahimovic et al – would patently offer no easier route to a historic destination.
The Celtic full-back recognises that German clubs present a clear and present danger. With seven clubs still in contention for Champions League and Europa League, they are one of only two countries whose entire quota of representatives remain intact. Moreover, he has first-hand knowledge of German players’ strengths, having scored for Sweden in the nutty 4-4 draw with Germany in their October World Cup qualifier, the Swedes mounting an outrageous comeback from 4-0 down.
Lustig was pitted against Dortmund winger Marcos Reus that evening, and is brutally honest about the nature of the contest. “For the first 60 minutes we never got near to their best players,” he says. “At times it felt like they had 22 players against our 11. I know the German teams well and think at the moment they are the best in the world, maybe with Barcelona and Real Madrid. When you see Dortmund against Manchester City and Real Madrid, what stands out is their speed and technique and their power. They have got everything and the German league is just getting better and better. They have a great amount of players who came through the under-21s. When they won the tournament in Sweden they had players like Ozil, Khadira and many others. So, they have young players in the best of their game right now.”
Lustig’s preferred last-16 opponent would be Juve, owing to his youthful fascination for Serie A and the Turin club’s demi-god Del Piero. “I still follow them but when Del Piero was there I was a big fan,” Lustig says. Equally, he suggests outsiders might have developed a greater affinity with Celtic courtesy of the profile-building victory over Barcelona featuring among their continental exploits. That was a result that caused even Ibrahimovic to raise one of his arch eyebrows, the striker now something of a local hero in Scotland following his four goals in the recent 4-2 friendly success over England.
“Of course, Zlatan is really big friends with Henrik Larsson, so he knows a lot about Celtic. But then I think there are now a lot of players out there who know about Celtic and the fans. We are a young group of players and feel we can only get better and better, and hope we can keep our most important players for the future [because of what we have done this season] but another aspect that will be good for us is when we’re trying to sign players. They will be watching us in the Champions League and must be impressed with everything about the club.”