It will probably be seen as nearly sacrilegious among some of the Celtic fans who were there but, for the club’s assistant manager Johan Mjallby, no matter who they face after today’s draw for the last 16 of the Champions League, the two-legged tie will be as big, if not bigger, than Seville.
For the unaware, on 21 May, 2003 in the Spanish city, Johan Mjallby, then captain of Sweden, and his Celtic colleagues suffered an agonising 2-3 extra-time defeat to Porto in the Uefa Cup Final. Can the forthcoming last 16 matches really be bigger?
“For me, personally, I have to say yes,” said Mjallby yesterday ahead of today’s draw, which will take place from 10.30am in Nyon. “When I first came here three years ago I wasn’t too sure that I would be sitting here with a chance to play in the last 16 of the Champions League.”
Seville was his biggest club match as a player. “Definitely, because if you are in a final there’s only two teams left and to lose out in extra time was probably the biggest disappointment. But it was maybe the biggest achievement in a way as we beat a lot of good teams on the way.”
No matter who Celtic draw of any of the seven clubs they could possibly face – Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke 04, Paris St Germain, or Malaga – Mjallby will consider it a bigger test. He said: “We are so proud of the players and it is one of the greatest achievements that I have been involved in to make it to the last 16. You are usually only happy when you win things, win titles, but the Champions League is the Champions League.”
Speaking after he handed over a £16,000 donation collected by the club’s season ticket holders to Yorkhill Children’s Foundation, who will use it for art therapy for young cardiac patients at the Glasgow hospital, Mjallby singled out his fellow Swedish international Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a player he would love Celtic to face – or not to face, not least because the striker is now a bigger name even than Henrik Larsson in his homeland.
Mjallby said: “Zlatan is a superstar – especially in Sweden where there are five or six pages dedicated to him in the newspapers every day – and probably even bigger than the King in Sweden! I don’t mean King Henrik, I mean the actual King of Sweden. King Henrik is quite big as well but I’d say Zlatan is maybe even trumping him.
“Zlatan is a top-quality striker, one of the best in the world and, wherever he goes, he wins titles and that speaks volumes for him. He is a great kid. I can’t say ‘kid’ any more because he’s getting on a bit as well – that just shows I am getting very old. But he has really improved.
“You could see straight away when you saw him that he had that bit of something special. He’s a special player and you knew he would go all the way.
“It’s always hard to say if he’s top three or top five in the world but he is a top striker.
“It would be nice to get [drawn against] him, but a great challenge for our defenders – and our whole team – is to make sure we keep clean sheets.”
Though Manchester United would be “the glamour game” and there would be the chance of revenge against Juventus – they put the big blond defender and his Celtic team-mates out of the Champions League in 2001 with a dodgy penalty – Mjallby named Malaga and Schalke 04 as the two sides “who might seem best to get,” at least on paper. Yet Celtic will have confidence against any of the seven.
He said: “Right now Schalke 04 are the side who maybe aren’t doing exceptionally well in their own domestic league but that can change as it’s still two months before we’re due to play.
“Last season Apoel Nicosia from Cyprus did really well and it’s not always down to financial resources.
“We’ve been quite happy to get to the place we are right now and the main thing is we have improved in this campaign. You can see the team spirit within the side is very good. But they are improving and I think as a team we’ve shown we can defend against top quality sides.”
Celtic will be underdogs no matter who they draw. “Usually when we play domestically in Scotland we won’t be underdogs, so it’s a bit different,” Mjallby added. “I think our support accepts that we might not have the ball all the time. We didn’t know when we started this adventure if we were good enough to play without the ball, because it’s going to be different playing in Europe. A lot of teams are very good at keeping the ball and we have to give up a lot of possession to other teams.
“We didn’t really know if we had the capabilities to defend as a team without the ball for long spells but I think we have taken a lot of confidence from showing that we can do it.”
Celtic fans have recently taken to singing about being on the road to Wembley – venue for the 2013 Champions League fina – but, despite his perfect English, Mjallby hadn’t a clue what they were on about: “Honestly I didn’t know. I’m too focused on the game.”
Make it to Wembley on 25 May next year, and Mjallby will really know what “bigger than Seville” means.