MIKAEL Lustig is delighted to have silenced Swedish naysayers who doubted Celtic’s Champions League credentials following their win over Helsingborgs earlier this season.
The Swede revealed many of his countrymen were less than impressed by Neil Lennon’s side in the first leg of their play-off in Scandinavia, despite the visitors emerging with a 2-0 lead that they doubled in the return at Parkhead. The Scottish champions went on to qualify from Group G as runners-up to Barcelona following an impressive campaign which included a famous win over the Catalan giants, and are now looking forward to Thursday’s last-16 draw.
Lustig, who is hoping to see Celtic paired with boyhood favourites Juventus, was at Celtic Park to preview today’s Clydesdale Bank Premier League clash with St Mirren but he looked back with satisfaction at the way the club’s European sceptics had been silenced.
He said: “(The reaction in Sweden to us qualifying) has been quite massive. When we reached the Champions League a lot of the media in Sweden said that Celtic is probably the team that shouldn’t be in the Champions League because they saw the first leg against Helsingborgs and they weren’t much impressed with that.
“Over two legs I think we were the stronger team but the first half in Helsingborg was really bad. Now they have seen that we are a really good team and work good together.”
Asked about his childhood passion for Juve, the 26-year-old full-back added: “I was a big Juventus fan when I was growing up but I don’t know why. I don’t think they are going to win the Champions League but they are obviously the best team in Italy right now and they should be disappointed if they don’t reach the semi-final. We are going to be underdogs whoever we get, although on paper Malaga could be a good draw for us. We were probably underdogs in every group game and we handled that pressure quite well.”
Lustig claimed to be unaware of reports that Russian outfit Rubin Kazan are preparing a January bid for him, but he believes most Celtic players would resist the temptation to move in January.
“I think every player will want to play in the last 16,” he said. “It has been a long journey to reach that goal and now we are here I think all of the players would like to stay.”
Lennon is trying to get his players to re-focus on domestic chores with Celtic, despite being three points clear at the top of the SPL, looking for their first home league win since 7 October. Looking ahead to the match with St Mirren, Lustig said: “Of course you think a lot about Champions League games so now it is nice to focus on the SPL. We have struggled a little bit, especially at home.
“It is hard to say why but we have some problems when teams come here just to defend. We have to find the key to break them down but hopefully we can do that now.”
David van Zanten admits St Mirren will need a bit of luck if they are to end their losing streak against Celtic.
Since taking over at St Mirren Park in 2010, Danny Lennon has failed to manage a point or even a goal against the Clydesdale Bank Premier League champions.
Earlier in the season Celtic strolled to a 5-0 away victory against the Paisley outfit and Van Zanten insists the pressure is on to avoid a similar result when the two sides meet today.
“The pressure is always on no matter who the opposition are, you are always under that pressure to win the game,” said the 30-year-old defender, who began his career as a youth player at Celtic Park.
“These are the games you look forward to, playing in front of big crowds and against the best players you possibly can play against. We know we will need a bit of luck and to be at our best – hopefully that will be enough to get the three points.
“Our aim is to go there and try win the game, albeit by stopping Celtic first and foremost and then try to impose ourselves on the game.”
St Mirren will make the trip on the back of four games without defeat. They will also be encouraged by Celtic’s poor home form.
St Mirren endured a run of six successive defeats between October and the middle of November, however after tightening up in defence they have moved six points clear of Dundee at the foot of the table.
“It may have been circumstances, but all we can do is take hope from the results that other teams have had there this season and aim to replicate that,” Van Zanten added.
“We have passed up a lot of opportunities recently, it’s the other way round from earlier on in the season where we were conceding a lot of goals but were taking our chances too.
“The next three or four games present a great chance for us to put some points on the board and move up the table, there was never a worry during our poor form and everything was positive.”