THERE is something about European football that keeps pulling Mikael Lustig back to the old country.
It is five years since the Swede left his native land to join Norwegian side Rosenborg. The Champions League third round qualifying tie that will see the Celtic defender face up to IF Elfsborg in Wednesday’s Glasgow first leg will represent no less than the fourth occasion since then that continental club competition will have placed him up against a team from his home nation.
The right-back, who joined the Scottish champions in late 2011, admits he would rather not meet up with Swedish teams. Even if these ties are “special”, results have made them feel like unpatriotic exercise for a man who has 32 caps for his country.
“When I played with Rosenborg, we played two Swedish teams [Djugarden in the UEFA Cup in 2008 and AIK in the Champions League in 2010] and now this will be my second time with Celtic and so far every time we have gone through, so that’s good, but I would rather play other teams than knock out a Swedish team,” he says.
Although respectful of Elfsborg – who he considers to be on a par with Helsingborg, beaten by Celtic in last year’s Champions League play-off round – Lustig gives no impression other than he expects his record against his own folk to read four out of four by the conclusion of the Swedish return leg a week on Wednesday.
Of course, he sounds some cautionary notes. There is “not much difference” between Elfsborg and Malmo, the Swedish league leaders who slaughtered Hibernian 7-0 at Easter Road in midweek to condemn the Leith club to a 9-0 aggregate Europa League qualifying round defeat that broke the record for such a battering by a Scottish club. “Both Elfsborg and Malmo want to play football on the deck and have good players,” he says. “They are quite the same as Helsingborgs too [in the way they play] and most Swedish teams like to play good, offensive football.
“Helsingborgs showed it last year. They didn’t score, but they played good football and had three 100 per cent chances in the away first leg that, had they scored [instead of being denied by Fraser Forster], could have made it a very different tie. And Elfsborg are a proper home team when they play on their artificial pitch. Their record there is unbelievable, but they struggle a little bit away, so we hope we can get a good result on Wednesday,” he says. There is a caveat, however. “The top five teams in the Allenskvan would probably be top teams here as well, but I think at Celtic we have a better squad than most of the Swedish teams.”
At the halfway point of their summer league, Elfsborg sit fifth, but with only one victory in the five league games ahead of their encounter yesterday. The defence of what was their first title in six years, and only their second in more than half a century, has proved something of a struggle for Jorgen Lennartsson because their home form has not been as solid as Lustig remembers it. Of their seven wins in 16 games, three have come on the road. Too many draws have hampered them. That can be traced, in part, to the fact that Celtic on-loan forward Mo Bangura, who seems sure to play despite Celtic manager Neil Lennon’s talk of that putting him in an “impossible position”, is the club’s second top league scorer with only five goals. The Sierra Leone forward, it has been pointedly noted, never scored at Celtic Park in the handful of appearances he made there following his £2.2m move from Swedish side AIK two years ago. Loan deals with first AIK and Elfsborg mean it is more than a year since he experienced game-time in the east end of Glasgow.
Among those special elements of the tie for Lustig will be finding himself in the opposing team to close friend from the international set-up, Anders Svensson. The one-time Southampton midfielder – outside of Bangura… or maybe including Bangura – will be the most recognisable face in the visitors’ line-up for Celtic supporters. Svensson is Elfsborg’s captain and within the year is likely to be the most-capped Swedish player of all time, the 37-year-old only two appearances shy of goalkeeper Thomas Ravelli’s 143-cap total.
“I know him really well. I have played with him in the national team now for three years. I’ve spoken to him a little bit when we knew we were going to face each other. They [Elfsborg] think it will be good games against Celtic, but they were not happy with the draw. It looks like he is going to break the international record so, of course, Anders is a big player in Sweden. He is proud of that and it’s going to be a big thing for him.”
Another major figure in the Elfsborg ranks very familiar to Lustig will be 48-year-old coach Lennartsson, who was the Celtic player’s under-21 coach. Lennartsson was also assistant coach at Helsingborgs when, in 2000, they became the last Swedish side to reach the Champions League group stages. Last season was his first in charge and the instant return of a league title has enhanced his reputation.
“He’s a real good coach. He was in Norway [with Stabaek] and I faced him there with Rosenborg. He’s just crazy about football. I think he watches about ten to 20 games a week so he loves it. They are not that big a team, they have small players who are quite quick and want to play the ball on the deck. He doesn’t like to take so many chances as well, especially when they play away. I think they will sit back a little bit.
“I don’t know what formation they will play, but they will have four at the back for sure. They have Anders Svensson and Henning Hauger, a Norwegian player, in midfield and have a bit of pace up front. Especially on the left. They are going to play Niklas Hult, who has been injured. Before he was injured he looked really sharp and is probably one of the quickest. On the right they have [Stefan] Ishizaki, who is not very quick, but has a very good right foot. It’s going to be a tough 90 minutes for me, but, hopefully I’m going to make him [Hult] run too.”
And continue his run of putting Swedish teams to the sword.