A trip to the Nou Camp to face Barcelona just four days after the first Old Firm league fixture in four years more than vindicates Brendan Rodgers’ decision to recommence his managerial career at Celtic.
It was a move that surprised some and was beset with risk since failure to reach the group stage of the Champions League would constitute an early blot on his copybook.
Rodgers accepts that, for the time being at least, he is considered a saint in the east end of Glasgow. But he knows how this status has the potential to be instantly reassessed depending on today’s result versus Aberdeen.
“You either walk on water or you’re the devil so I never get too carried away or too disappointed,” he said yesterday. “We achieved what we wanted to achieve. Qualification was extremely tough. It’s been a unique pre-season for us. After the intensity of the games and the level of healthy pressure that’s there for qualification, we can really enjoy it now.”
But it’s not for his benefit that he’s excited. Rather, it is for the sake of his players, particularly young ones such as Kieran Tierney and on-loan Patrick Roberts, who is now confirmed as being available for selection in the two Group C fixtures against parent club Manchester City.
These are the games, specifically against opposition from abroad, where new tricks can be learned and innovative tactics adopted. Everyone has to start somewhere. To illustrate this point, Rodgers provided an anecdote featuring someone who it’s hard to believe was ever a fresh-faced novice.
“I was talking to Danny McGrain about it the other day,” he said. “He is a club legend. He has played a lot of games here in Scotland. But one of his first big learning experiences was when he played against a German team.
“The first game was away from home and the winger made a movement that he had never seen before and he got away from him. So that made him think as a footballer. When he came back and thought about how he could deal with it, it made him a better player.
“So when you play against different styles, different cultures, different types of players, they will present to you different problems that you’ve got to find a solution to. Whether you come off second best or not, you will always learn from it. That makes you better and that’s what it’s about.”
But before such education opportunities there has to be a time to savour succeeding in the season’s first objective: qualifying for the Champions League group stage.
As soon as the final whistle goes at the end of today’s league clash with Aberdeen, Rodgers will ask the players to draw breath and reflect on what they have achieved during this vital ten-game mini-season, from early-July to the end of August. Already a lot of ground has been covered, a lot of sweat spilled.
“It’s something that we will reflect on over the course of the international break because I think it’s very important that the players can celebrate a milestone,” he said. “Because it clearly is a milestone.
“You have to because if you’re always running the race, you never get the feeling of going over the finish line. It can be tough. The players have created something here in the last five or six weeks that is a milestone. It’s a celebration.
“But they will do that at the right time. It was our first goal of the season and we achieved it. It meant a lot to the club. It meant a lot to the players. It means a lot to the staff to have helped them get there.
“It’s given them huge confidence that they’ve been able to take on board what we’ve been trying to give them. We still have a lot of improvements to make but the early signs are really positive. That makes you happy as a coach.”
But Rodgers knows that the applause will quickly die away should Aberdeen record a rare league victory at Parkhead, where they have lost every one of their last 22 visits.
Nevertheless, he is well aware the Pittodrie side have been Celtic’s nearest challengers in recent times. Rangers’ return to the top flight does not automatically reduce the threat posed by the Pittodrie side; they still need to be treated as a serious rival. “Aberdeen, historically, are a great club up here and I have a lot of respect for them,” he said.
He was reluctant to shed any light on who will feature this afternoon, with the biggest question mark perhaps being over the goalkeeper position. Now Dorus de Vries is fit, might he be preferred over Craig Gordon? Rodgers sounded as if he was considering making limited changes.
“There is no time to rest,” he said. “They have put a lot into the game [v Hapoel Beer-Sheva] but I will always pick a team that I think can win the game.”
Rodgers praised Derek McInnes, their paths having crossed at first when they were both managing at clubs relatively nearby – Rodgers at Swansea, McInnes at Bristol City.
“They have a lot of young players, some of whom I know,” he added. “I had Jonny Hayes at Reading when he was just 16 and I know Jonny well. He is a player I also considered taking to Swansea.
“The young boy [Adam] Rooney is good in the air, strong, scores goals, so they have good players and we respect them. They will come and want to impose their game on us but our focus is very much on ourselves, especially at home where we want to win the game. The atmosphere will be brilliant. We want to push on and keep this going.”