THE electric atmosphere and resilient performance in last season’s thrilling 3-3 draw with Inter Milan and the subsequent feeling of disappointment when progression did not materialise has convinced Stuart Armstrong that Celtic belong in the Champions League.
The former Dundee United attacker was only three games into his Celtic career when he was pitched in against Roberto Mancini’s side and promptly thrived in the elite environment.
He scored Celtic’s first goal in that Europa League Round of 32 tie and then pressurised Hugo Campagnaro into deflecting the ball into his own net on a night he describes as the most enjoyable in his career.
It convinced him that Ronny Deila’s squad is deserving of inclusion at the top end of European football as they begin the preparations for a demanding campaign of three qualifying ties which he hopes will result in a place in the Champions League group phase.
Armstrong said: “The Inter game is probably the most enjoyable game I have ever played in – everything about it, the atmosphere, the noise and scoring was nice, too.
“It was also nice to get something out of the game. When John Guidetti made it 3-3 in injury time at Celtic Park, that made it most enjoyable and we felt we could get something at the San Siro.
The Inter game is probably the most enjoyable game I have ever played inStuart Armstrong
“If there is more of them to follow, I can’t wait. It’s nice to play in those games, but it’s even nicer when you give a good account of yourselves when you are playing a team like Inter.
“To feel hard done by when you get knocked out, that was a real vote of confidence.”
Celtic open up against Icelandic champions Stjarnan, who eliminated Motherwell and Lech Poznan from the Europa League last season, on Wednesday 15 July, with the return a week later.
Predictably, the Icelanders having been trying to turn up the heat ahead of the first match by insisting that the pressure is all on Celtic. Without being dismissive, Armstrong is quietly confident Stjarnan can be dealt with and Celtic can move on to stage two.
He said: “They have their opinion and they are entitled to it. That is irrelevant to us, we’re focused on ourselves and our preparation. We won’t be paying too much attention to anything. It’s water off a duck’s back.
“I would say they will be very tricky. A lot of people will be feeling we should get through, but it’s a tough competition and all of the teams that are in it will be feeling they are there on merit.”
Deila is doing his best to make sure Celtic are as prepared as possible with three preparatory games against continental opposition – Den Bosch of the Netherlands, Dukla Prague from the Czech Republic and Spaniards Real Sociedad, managed by Davie Moyes.
He remembers only too well the disasters of last season when Celtic were eliminated by Legia Warsaw, then reinstated when the Poles played an ineligible player only to be knocked out again by Maribor.
The Slovenians could be one of Celtic’s prospective opponents in the third and final phase off the qualifying process.
“It’s definitely not a given and it’s a very tough ask,” admitted Armstrong “There are a lot of good teams that feel they deserve to get into the groups.
“We’ll have to be at the top of our game if we want to get that far and with a little bit of luck along the way.
“I saw glimpses of Celtic’s qualifying matches last season. It’s definitely tough as was evident last season and it’ll be tough again this season but we’re excited and not under false impressions.
“We will prepare well and Real Sociedad is going to be a good game against good opposition.
“It’ll give us a mark of where we are in terms of preparation and a good warm-up match for the qualifier.”
Armstrong feels the four-month spell last season helped him settle in as a Celtic player and now he is ready to kick on.
He said: “It’s good to make a little mark at the end of last season but now is the time that you really feel a Celtic player and you’re starting again fresh for the new season and full of excitement.”