It wouldn’t normally fill a team’s supporters with confidence to hear that their players will be indulging in bleary-eyed munchy-fests across the early hours in preparation for a crucial European game. Yet, even if such elements are typically associated with a right good night out, they will speak of awkward evenings in for Celtic on their travels to Kazakhstan this week.
Mikael Lustig has more experience of travelling to the eastern Asian nation on football duty than any other member of the squad that Brendan Rodgers will take with him for the first leg of the third qualifying round Champions League assignment against FC Astana.
Lustig was a member of the Celtic team that lost 2-0 to Shakhter Karagandy in a Champions League play-off in August 2013 – on the same synthetic surface in the Astana Arena they will play come three days’ time. A month later, with Celtic having made the group stages after a 3-0 Celtic Park recovery in that tie, Lustig was again in Kazakhstan as Sweden were hosted in a World Cup qualifier. On both occasions, to avoid upsetting their body clocks, Lustig and his team-mates didn’t respect the five-hour time difference in planning their day… and night.
“We will try to do everything to cope with the time difference,” he said. “You are better staying in your own time zone instead of trying to change. That’s what we did with the Swedish national team. You just stay up to 4am or 5am and have dinner in the middle of the night. That’s the best way to do it. Teams like Germany have done that too and it works. It’s strange to be eating at that time but you don’t feel like you need to sleep, so it’s better to do that. But I think it will harder for them to come over here, The kick-of time will be at 1am for them and hopefully that gives us an advantage. The flight isn’t ideal as you never want to sit on a plane for six hours. But we will go over there on Monday and that’s good. It gives us a couple of days to get used to it.”
Lustig admits you never really get used to starting your season with potentially the most important games across the entire ten-month span of it. Celtic have hardly coped well with having to negotiate three qualifying rounds in recent seasons. Karagandy came within the width of a post of preventing them reaching the group stages. After Legia Warsaw didn’t do so at this stage two years ago only because they fielded an ineligible for a matter of minutes, Maribor and Malmo made Ronny Deila’s team pay for slackness at the play-off stage these past two seasons.
A slackness was evident as the Rodgers era opened up with a butttock-clenching 1-0 defeat by Gibraltar semi-professional first-timers in the competition Lincoln Red Imps. That result was not wiped from the memory by the comprehensive 3-0 return leg win that was set in motion by an early goal by Lustig.
The experience in Gibaltar hardly appears to bode well for facing Astana in a home stadium that was a security blanket for the club in the Champions League last season. As cannot be pointed out often enough, they remained unbeaten in the ground across six games between qualifiers and the group stage; with the latter seeing them take points against Atletico Madrid, Benfica and Galatasaray. “These games never get easier,” Lustig said. “Look at Qarabag last season. We felt we should beat them, on paper. But we had to get a last-minute goal at Celtic Park and then grind it out over there. Sometimes you need to do that, especially when it’s so early in the season. Maybe we don’t have all the players in the right positions yet so it’s hard. But we have experience and hopefully we can grind our results.
“The game in Gibraltar was quite special and quite embarrassing for us but we played well from the first minute in the second leg. Jamesie [James Forrest] and Patrick [Patrick Roberts] down the sides did really well and we controlled the game straight away. We created chances and after scoring the first goal, we didn’t look back.
“It will be a far tougher game in Astana than Gibraltar. We know how difficult it will be from the 2-0 defeat by Karagandy but hopefully we can get a better first-leg result. When you play away from home, you need to take your opportunities. I remember we had a really good chance in the last five minutes over there and we hit the bar. They scored from a long throw-in and that made it difficult. The astroturf makes it difficult and we have struggled on that surface before. But hopefully we have learned from that and will know how to get a good result on that hard surface.”