The potential for suffering wounds to body and soul against Barcelona this evening is very real for Celtic players who are only days away from a game of monstrous importance.
Regardless of how the International Champions Cup clash in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium might be dressed up, it is essentially a series of meaningless friendlies which Brendan Rodgers’ men seem to face just before ties that mean so much.
What, might then be asked, has the ICC ever done for Celtic? Apart from the opportunity to earn some serious spondulicks. And apart from the chance to play some glamour opponents and raise the club’s profile globally after two years when it has been diminished by failure to reach the Champions League. Yes, apart from these upsides, what has the competition ever done for Celtic?
The club’s first-team coach John Kennedy was willing to buy into another plus of participation that takes the form of Eoghan O’Connell.
The 20-year-old may have been at fault for Astana’s goal in the 1-1 draw that offers a platform for progress in the Champions League qualifiers. He was not undeserving of the high praise that ensued from his manager, though. Praise earned for the manner he coped in Kazakhstan after called upon for a European debut as a result of Celtic being five players down in the centre-back area.
O’Connell would have been unlikely to have been in a position to step in had he not played in the ICC match-up with Leicester City a week ago.
“He was able to test himself against England’s best and played himself into the team,” Kennedy said.
Now there might be others who could nudge themselves into contention for the return leg of the Champions League third round qualifier by showing up well against the world’s favourite football club. Yes, that’s all – opponents that might have a raft of players missing but still field Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. Maybe they will play one of them at the back to make up the numbers.
Those concerned over what Celtic’s game in Dublin tonight could take out of them ahead of hosting Astana on Wednesday are sure to be comforted by the fact that qualifier will dictate the shape of the team against Barcelona.
Kennedy revealed as much when he was asked about the possibility of Kieran Tierney being given game time against Barcelona after appearing to be struggling at the end of the encounter in the Astana Arena the other day.
“He had a cramp in midweek. That was all it was – there was no injury there. He has travelled with us and if he’s feeling no effects tomorrow he’ll probably play part of the game but if there are any doubts we will keep him out and protect him for midweek,” he said.
Yet, the positive mindset that Rodgers has sought to develop within his domain means that Kennedy considers there is more to the meeting with a Barcelona side than simply protecting players for Wednesday.
Kennedy’s career, so cruelly wrecked by injury in his early 20s, is remembered for the incredible display in the Nou Camp that help Martin O’Neill’s team repel Barcelona and earn the scoreless draw. A result that allowed them to oust them from the Uefa Cup in 2004. It was only weeks later that he suffered the horrendous injury on his Scotland debut that meant he experienced no further such highs.
Kennedy would never then baulk at the opportunity – whatever the backdrop – to show your mettle against elite opposition. “It’s a game where we can see where we are at, in terms of performance levels, playing against a top side,” he said. “This is where you test yourself and see exactly where you are at. It gives you a marker.
“We have done a lot of good work pre-season against different oppositions but we are going up a different level now. We can see, individually, where players are at and more importantly, collectively, as a team, how we can handle playing against that calibre of side. It’s a great test for us and there will be a great atmosphere over there as well.”
Kennedy was able to report good news on a young centre-back whose Celtic career has thus far been blighted by injury. Last summer’s £4.5 million capture from Dinamo Zagreb, Jozo Simunovic, out since January with a knee problem that required an operation, was pictured on the training pitch at Lennoxtown yesterday.
“it was good to see to Jozo out on the grass,” the Celtic coach said. “He has been out a long time so it was the first chance for him to be close to this group. He now needs to get his levels back up to the point where he joins in. The signs are very positive, though, He is very happy with the way his rehabilitation has gone. Fingers crossed that continues we might see him again in a few weeks’ time.”