As he took his seat with the written media at Celtic Park yesterday afternoon, Brendan Rodgers casually opened the conversation with a traditional ice-breaker about the weather.
He observed that the forecast is for a chilly evening in the east end of Glasgow tonight with a temperature of minus two degrees expected for the pivotal Champions League Group C showdown against Barcelona. It will be in sharp contrast to the humid conditions Celtic faced at the Nou Camp in September when their campaign began with a club record European defeat of 7-0 at the hands of the Spanish champions. As Rodgers attempts to plot a dramatic reversal of fortunes in the return fixture, he is looking for his players to turn up the heat on Lionel Messi & Co in other ways.
For while the final scoreline two months ago told its own story, so the remarkable statistic that Celtic committed only three fouls during the 90 minutes provided a startling indication of how they were simply unable to make any kind of impression against their illustrious opponents. Although Rodgers is a football purist in many ways, he will demand his team adopt a far less passive approach tonight.
“We hardly made a foul last time,” he said. “We are a physical team, we are an aggressive team when we defend. We are not cynical, but you can make tactical fouls. That is important. Everyone will make a tactical foul. If you have to do that, then that is what you do.
“I was bitterly disappointed how easily we conceded the goals in Barcelona which put a shine on the scoreline for them, which maybe at four or five down people were half expecting. Two months down the line we’re a better team, we’re a stronger team mentally. We had to grow mentally and we’ve shown we’ve done that. It’s probably going to be the case that Barcelona will again have more possession of the ball but as individuals and collectively, I’d like to think we’ll be much harder and more robust to play against this time.”
Celtic will require a display of similar spirit, resilience and tactical organisation to the one masterminded by Neil Lennon, inset, in 2012 when goals from Victor Wanyama and Tony Watt earned the stunning 2-1 win over Barcelona which just happened to coincide with the Scottish champions’ 125th birthday celebrations.
Photographs of that occasion at Celtic’s training centre in Lennoxtown provide a constant reminder to the current squad and Rodgers is hopeful the side he has moulded over the past few months can conjure up what he accepts will need to be a career-best performance if they are to secure the win which would maintain their hopes of reaching the last 16 of the tournament.
“There are a lot of factors within it,” he added. “In order to get a result against a team at this level you need to bring your ‘A’ game, you need to have lots of things that go with you. You need to play the game of your life and hope that you get that bit of luck. It’s certainly one where our players need to be at the top of their game.
“We’ve heard ever since I came here about the game with Neil’s team when they had a brilliant result here four years ago. That’s a game that probably will go down in history. Our 3-3 draw against Manchester City here this season is another that will go down as an incredible game.
“But, of course, the Barcelona game in 2012 was a huge moment for the team. So, in order to get that victory, of course it’s going to take an extra special performance. It was a big performance from the players that played that night and Neil deserved that. But my message now is to go and create new memories going forward. We can’t live in the past. The game in 2012 is here as motivation and inspiration, but we have to create our own memories.
“I think the current squad, in my time here, have shown they are capable of that. Can they bring that now into this game here to a level that can get them a good result? In the context of the tournament and the group we are in, and the games we’ve played, I think what the team has shown is that it has been able to do well in different games with an aggressive, attacking style of football. If we’re talking about a team to recover the game and recover the ball, that was a great performance when we played Manchester City here. That was a team that was coming in and everyone thought they would come and streamroller us, a team that had won ten out of ten games this season before that night.
“Everything was firing for City, they were pressing, they were aggressive, and they came here and arguably we have actually changed the fortune of all the teams who have played against them since then. Because after that they lost to Tottenham and they went on a run of six games where they didn’t win. So my players have created something for others to look at.”