It was a Champions League campaign which began between a rock and a hard place for Brendan Rodgers five months ago. It has now reached its conclusion with Celtic supporters in no doubt Rodgers is leading them to a very special place.
“It’s fair to say we have come a long way since that first game,” said the Celtic manager with a smile as he reflected on the development of his team in the wake of that infamous 1-0 defeat in Gibraltar to the semi-professionals of Lincoln Red Imps in the first leg of their opening qualifier back in July.
It was a result which provoked screaming headlines in Scotland and beyond before Celtic comfortably overturned the deficit at home to place the embarrassment of the loss in a more benign context. Their progress under Rodgers in the subsequent weeks and months, as Celtic successfully negotiated the rest of the tortuously stressful qualifying process to reach the lucrative group stage for the first time in three years, has been generally nothing less than impressive.
An exception to that assessment clearly has to be made in relation to the 7-0 defeat Celtic suffered against Barcelona in the Nou Camp on matchday one of Group C which also pitched them in with Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach. But Rodgers even succeeded in persuading his players that chastening evening was part of a valuable learning curve.
It is a lesson they appear to have taken on board to significant effect, with the subsequent 1-1 draws on the road against Borussia and then City on Tuesday night meaning Rodgers is the first Celtic manager to lose only one of the three away fixtures in a Champions League group.
Given their previously abject record away from home in the tournament, there is genuine encouragement for Celtic fans to take from performances which saw Rodgers’ side play with composure, tactical nous and a commitment to be on the front foot in the back yards of notionally far superior opposition. “For us to impose our style, calmness and quality on the game on Tuesday shows we have grown and developed and that’s what this season was probably going to be about in the Champions League,” said Rodgers.
“The whole campaign has gone from that first game in Gibraltar to getting draws that could easily have been wins at two really tough places in Monchengladbach and Manchester City. A year further down the line, hopefully we can make the next step.
“We have to find a way of being different because the scale of our budget compared to the others at that level is night and day. So collectively we have to be different in terms of a game model and way of playing that can disrupt an opponent. Listen, there are different ways to play football, but my teams have always, in the main, been aggressive when they defend, press the game, never give the opposition a minute’s peace and when they have the ball they show the courage and bravery to play the game to a high level, technically and tactically.
“Slowly, we’re starting to see that, the sort of beginnings of that now on the bigger stages. It’s okay doing it in other games domestically, but can you go and impose that in the biggest jungles in the world? We’ve got to have that confidence and there’s no doubt about the confidence in which they played the game against Manchester City. More time working together will improve it, we’ll make little adjustments here and there to the squad which will allow us to improve.
“I was never really worried after the game in Gibraltar. It was a nice little wake-up for the players. There had been a lot of good work that had been done over the pre-season but that showed me there was still a way to go with these players, in terms of belief that they could actually go out there and lose a game like that.
“It can happen, of course, with the astro pitch and everything else. But it sharpened the teeth in many aspects of what we wanted to do. I said at the time, when it was supposedly embarrassing, that I knew when we got home we would win the tie. It also told me a couple of wee things early on about the fragility of the team. When I first came in, I knew there was very little time to work tactically with the team. It was about creating a mindset to at least believe they could qualify. There was lots of negativity about it. So our first thing was to create a mindset and say ‘come on, we can work and work well.’ Then we rolled out the tactical element of it and from that period at the beginning where we had them set up to work and press, now we can offer much more to the game in an offensive manner.
“One year down the line we want to be better prepared in every facet of our approach to qualifying. I don’t think it will make it less stressful or less pressurised but certainly we will enter into it knowing that from day one at pre-season that I will have a fitter bunch of players and then we can roll out other aspects.”
Should Celtic qualify again next season, Rodgers will also hope for a more benevolent draw than the one which landed them with clubs from Europe’s leading three leagues. But he is realistic about the size of the challenge that stage of the tournament will pose regardless.
“We will always be in a tough group, because any Scottish team will always be in that pot four,” he added. “So you are always going to be up against it.
“The spin on that is that it was brilliant for us this season. Because you improve when you work and play against the best. Our players were playing against the best in this group and it was a good measure for them. It’s safe to say that, from the beginning to how it went on, they did Scotland very proud. They showed they can operate and function at the highest level of the game and with so much more improvement to come.
“We’re still a long way off where I want to be. We’re a long way off the ‘penny dropping’ moment. But what I am seeing is that it’s starting to flow better. We build and consolidate the game. We’re incisive with our movement and passing in the game and finishing. It’s building well but that’s all it is. It’s still a way to go from where I want us to be.”