Matchday two of the Champions League should provide evidence of whether Celtic’s 7-0 drubbing in Barcelona was a realistic indication of their status as makeweights in Group C or simply a false start.
As far as manager Brendan Rodgers is concerned, his team didn’t even get off their marks in the Nou Camp two weeks ago.
As they seek to reclaim some credibility in Europe’s elite club tournament tonight, Rodgers has urged his players to draw upon what he describes as the “power” of Celtic Park and get their campaign up and running against English Premier League leaders Manchester City.
It will be Rodgers’ first experience of the stadium on a Champions League group stage night. Celtic’s home record at this stage of the competition is almost as impressive as their history of results on the road is miserable.
In their 24 previous group games in the east end of Glasgow, Celtic have won 16 of them and suffered just three defeats – twice at the hands of Barcelona and one against AC Milan. They have claimed several notable scalps along the way and Rodgers believes the celebrated atmosphere generated at the ground could help them become the team to halt Pep Guardiola’s stunning start to life as Manchester City coach in whichhis side have won ten consecutive victories in all competitions so far.
“There is some relevance for us in Celtic’s record at home in the group stage,” said Rodgers. “It’s an incredible record which shows you the power of the stadium and what it gives to the team. They played against really good teams as well. City are on a great run and it will end at some point, so why not us being the ones to end it? That has to be the attitude.
“The qualifiers this season were great for me, I have to say. The atmosphere here in all three games, especially the final qualification game against Hapoel Beer-Sheva, was absolutely incredible. For people who maybe haven’t been to the stadium for a game, it’s a different roar. It’s a different noise that comes out of here. I’m really looking forward to the group stage here, the whole spectacle and the game itself.
“When you go to Barcelona and experience what we did, it was obviously difficult for the players with the level of opponent they faced.
“But I think now there is a realisation that we are actually in the tournament. We are in the group stage and we have earned the right to be here. They can reflect on that performance in Barcelona but now this is where it starts. We are in it and belief has been growing. The team are improving and, on Wednesday night, we want to try to impose our way of working on the game.
“You don’t just write off the night in Barcelona. It’s a great learning process. On the night, it’s not so nice when you go through that. You have to learn from it and this is the process, not only for this club and team, but hopefully for Scottish football over the next few years. You have to get those experiences.
“We come from a domestic level which is tough but European level is completely different. Until you are in it and experience it, only then will you improve. This is another great game to learn from, irrespective of the result.”
Rodgers, though, was keen to stress that Celtic retain genuine ambitions of further progress in Europe this season and are not simply content to soak up the experience of what is widely regarded as the most difficult group they could have found themselves in.
“It’s not just about performing and learning, we want to win the game,” he added. “It’s the learning afterwards, that’s what I’m talking about. Otherwise there’s no point in us turning up. But to be here and to put a fight on, to get a result, that’s what it’s about. For us it’s the passion of the crowd and the passion of the team and our players getting the opportunity to play against a top side. That will help us.
“I’m not saying we are not going out to win the game, that they are only learning games.
“We might go two games without picking up points. We will do our very best, that’s all we can do. But we know the reality of where it’s at. You have to go into every game with the notion you can get points.
“Everyone understands they are tough games but we are trying to ensure the team believe they can get the points, that they can go and perform well.”
On current form, Manchester City are capable of providing just as much difficulty to Rodgers’ players as Barcelona did. He has urged a less passive approach than witnessed in the Nou Camp, but accepts a whole stack of cards will need to fall in Celtic’s favour if they are to record a famous victory.
“Our game is based about aggression, the intensity with which we play,” he said. “We know City are one of the leading teams in Europe but somehow you have to try to find a way.
“City have world-class players in Sergio Aguero and David Silva. World-class players are hard to tie down, because they will always find space. What you have to try to do is negate that space as much as possible and try to negate their influence on the game. It’s a big, big task for us but Kevin de Bruyne being out maybe helps us.
“There are many factors within it. You have to be aggressive in your pressing, you have to be educated in your pressure because you are not collectively pressing together.
“You can get picked off, so it’s about pressing at the right time. It’s about being compact at the right times. It’s about taking your chances when they come. It’s about a bit of luck along the way as well. You are always hoping your goalkeeper can have a good night in big games. So there are many factors in getting a good result.
“Since I came here I think the team has always shown a level of intensity and aggression in their game. In every game and team you have to be educated in your pressure. It’s not about running, you have to be clever in terms of when you press. To compete at this level, I know what we have to do to be better. These types of games give us a chance to do that.”