THE Europa League trophy was resplendent in all its silver and marble glory at Lennoxtown yesterday, glinting in the late autumn sunshine which briefly bathed Celtic’s training centre.
As part of a Uefa promotional tour, the famous handle-free octagonal cup will also be on display outside Celtic Park tomorrow before the Scottish champions face their Austrian counterparts Red Bull Salzburg in a Group D fixture pivotal to their hopes of reaching the last 32 of the competition.
But while Celtic supporters will be keen to take this opportunity to get some souvenir photographs with them clutching what was previously known as the Uefa Cup, the club’s current first-team squad have a strict rule in place when it comes to their own contact with it.
“I wanted to touch the trophy, but I couldn’t,” smiled Jason Denayer, the Celtic defender who was charged with the media promotional duties yesterday. “It’s a superstition. All of the players told me ‘don’t touch the trophy, it’s bad luck’, so I didn’t touch it.”
Denayer was just eight years old when Celtic came as close as any Scottish side has done to lifting the trophy when it really matters. But thanks to his football obsessive father Andre, the young Belgian is not completely unaware of the place in Celtic folklore afforded to the 2003 final in Seville when Martin O’Neill’s team lost 3-2 in extra time to Jose Mourinho’s Porto.
“My dad speaks to me about this,” added Denayer. “They got to the final, right? Yeah, he tells me how great that was and says it would be great to go back to the final again this year and win the cup. That is the only way I will be able to touch the cup!
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“It is not impossible for us to win it but we will need to play well, 100 per cent every game, because there are some very good teams in it and in the next round some more very good teams will drop down from the Champions League. We will need to be at 100 per cent if we want to go further.”
Denayer’s father is an ongoing influence in the 19-year-old’s career which has flourished since he joined Celtic on a season-long loan from Manchester City in August. “I spend a lot of time with my dad,” he said. “He lives in Glasgow with me now and he also stayed with me in Manchester. He is a real football fan, reading about it and watching it all the time.
“He only played at youth level when he was younger, but he is the guy who tells me what to do, what is bad and what is good.”
Denayer’s performances alongside Virgil van Dijk at the heart of Celtic’s defence this season have earned him a call-up to the senior Belgian international squad, although he has yet to make his full debut for his country. He appreciates the profile European football with Celtic has given him and is preparing himself for an especially challenging test against a Salzburg side whose attacking options include his Belgian under-21 team-mate Massimo Bruno.
“He is a very good player,” says Denayer of the flying winger who has scored three goals in Salzburg’s last three games. “He is very fast, a good dribbler and you have to be very careful against him. I haven’t spoken to him about this game but I will send him some text messages beforehand.
“It will be a hard game for us against Salzburg. The player we need to be most concerned about is Jonatan Soriano. He is different to other attackers – he isn’t really fast or strong, but he is very intelligent. He can change the game with every pass and every attack.
“Playing these games is important for me. If I am not enjoying playing at this kind of level, I can’t go higher. My objective is to go higher in the game so I need to prove myself at this level.”
Denayer limped out of Celtic’s less than wholly convincing 2-1 league win at home to Dundee with an ankle injury but is optimistic he will be fit enough to face Salzburg. “I will do all I can to play in the game,” he added. “I got a kick on my ankle and it has been swollen, but the swelling is going down and I am desperate to play.
“We need to play with a better tempo against Salzburg than we did against Dundee. But that was just after the international break, we had only just come back, and in training this week it has been a lot better.”
According to Celtic assistant manager John Collins, Denayer has shown a level of maturity beyond his years in his first few months at the club.
“Jason ticks lots of boxes,” said Collins. “He is very competitive, composed and has good pace. In every game he’s been consistent which is all credit to him. Sometimes you get up and down performances from young players, but he’s kept up high standards week in, week out.
“It would be highly unlikely that we’ll be able to sign him from Manchester City at the end of his loan but, for sure, we’ll be trying. As soon as he arrived, after ten minutes, anyone with a football brain could tell he was a player. We would love to keep him. I’m not sure if the club have spoken to him but we’ve got him until the end of the season and that is good news in itself. It would be ideal if we could extend the loan deal.
“He was playing youth football this time last year so to go from playing in front of 20 people to playing at Celtic Park in Europe is wonderful experience and great education for him. Manchester City have to be delighted with that and the game-time he’s getting, in pressurised situations. They’ll be delighted and we’re delighted to have him. I know he’s enjoying it. He loves being here.”
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