IN HIS search for improvement, Stefan Johansen wants to become “stronger in the tackle” and “quicker” in getting about the pitch. If that sounds like the Celtic midfielder is putting himself forward for the Scott Brown role, he maintains that is far from the case.
When Ronny Delia’s men line up against Legia Warsaw in Poland this Wednesday for the first leg of their third round Champions League qualifier, the loss of Brown for three months to a hamstring tear might not be the concern first feared.
Johansen partnered stand-in skipper Charlie Mulgrew in the deep-lying midfield roles to fine effect as Celtic breezed past KR Reykjavik with a 4-0 Murrayfield win last Tuesday.
The Norwegian, though, isn’t attempting to be a Brown-style battler – even allowing for the fact he had an angry exchange in midweek with Baldur Sigurdsson after a late tackle on him by the midfielder.
“The player came to me and that’s football. It’s a contact sport,” Johansen said. “But after the game we spoke and it was no problem. He caught me late and I told him it wasn’t necessary. He tried to win the ball and that’s football. We shook hands at the end and it was a good fight. But I’m not the Norwegian Scott Brown.”
Yet, he has relished occupying the berth that might have been Brown’s domain, not least because of his respect for Mulgrew. “I love to play with Charlie. He’s a great, great footballer. He’s good with the ball and defensively,” he said. “I felt we did well and Charlie is a very good player. It’s easy to play with guys of his ability. You never went to lose players like Broony. He means a lot to the team. But when he is out, someone else needs to take charge. Charlie is the captain now and he does the job well. Everybody has to make sure they can help the team. If you get a chance, you have to earn the right to play.”
Johansen knows that the roadblocks to Celtic negotiating a path to the Champions League land of milk and honey will now become altogether more sizeable. A warning was sent out to Celtic by the Polish champions, led by his countryman Henning Berg, with their, albeit slightly flattering, 5-0 victory over St Patrick’s Athletic in Dublin on Wednesday.
“We had a tough game in Iceland but it will get harder as we progress,” he said. “But that’s the Champions League and that’s the way it should be. If you want to be with the best, you have to beat the best. Celtic Park is our ground but there was an amazing atmosphere at Murrayfield. We felt at home. We wanted to play football and drew a lot of confidence from the crowd.
“It was a good performance [on Tuesday]. The pitch was great, there were a lot of fans here and now the games are starting to become important. We had a great pre-season and we showed against KR that we are ready. Match fitness is coming now, so it’s looking good. Midweek was the best we have played under the new manager. The first half was very good. It’s difficult to play against a team that sits back so much, but we had a tempo and scored four goals. It was a good game for us.”
The arrival of Delia, the man who transformed his career at Stromsgodset, might appear to have represented a good break for Johansen. He hasn’t noticed any change in his one-time mentor, except for the circumstances in which he is now applying his holistic approach.
“There is a big difference [in one sense],” he said. “I don’t want to say bad things about Stromsgodset, but the quality of the players is much higher here. But the philosophy is the same. Ronny wants us to have the ball and tries to do the same things.
“We like to build up from the back. That’s what the manager likes and we will adapt more as we go on. He has spoken to all the players about what he expects from us. He likes small details. He has told me what I can improve on and be better at. We try to improve every day. I feel comfortable under Ronny. He has done a very good job until now. I don’t see a big change in him. I think he is the same but the things he has done already look good for the future.”
When it comes to Legia Warsaw in the qualifiers, that future has to be now.