Among the many contexts in which Sunday’s Old Firm Scottish Cup derby has been set, one of the most intriguing is what the outcome will mean for Ronny Deila’s future.
Losing yet another semi-final, to a lower-league Rangers side of all teams, would ratchet up the pressure on Deila. But defender Mikael Lustig perhaps wishes to deflect attention away from his manager by wondering what the consequence of defeat will be for the players.
The Swede believes everyone at Celtic has reason to fear for their future if they fall short on Sunday. There is more at stake than simply reaching a Scottish Cup final.
Lustig admits the question of Deila’s future is an understandable talking point for Celtic fans. But he says it won’t, whatever happens, be a matter for the board, who ought to take a more considered, long-term view.
Lustig confirmed the players were aware of the potential ramifications of defeat for a manager whose Celtic future seems to be perpetually on the brink.
“Of course,” he said. “If you are talking to the fans, then yes. But if you are talking to the board, I don’t think they think the same way, this is just one game.”
“But it’s not just the gaffer,” he added. “It is all the players as well. If we do not do well then maybe next season we are not here. They maybe take someone else in. It’s all the staff [who are under scrutiny].”
“We have not been satisfied for the most part this season,” he added. “Sometimes you feel the criticism is a little a bit harsh, sometimes you can absolutely agree. If we can have a strong finish now and win the league – we are eight points clear there so it is looking good – and if we can win a cup now as well, suddenly it feels like the season was not that bad at all.”
Lustig has sympathy with fans who feel underwhelmed by the season so far, even if it appears as if Celtic have finally taken a commanding lead at the top of the league.
“We know ourselves what it is all about,” he said. “We have had a lot of success over the last four years. When you reach the Champions League you maybe think you are a Champions League team and that raises the bar. People have already got the taste, they always want to be there. It is quite normal, but we are working hard every day to try and get back there.”
Although he joined the club in early 2012, while Rangers were still in the top flight, Lustig did not appear in an Old Firm derby that season. He finally came up against the Ibrox club last season, in a straightforward 2-0 League Cup semi-final win.
“I may only have played against them the once but I have been here for four years,” he said. “I understand what it means to people. It’s a lot of things. It’s more about the build-up and the hype.”
Lustig believes nothing can compare. Not even the ancient rivalry between his Swedish homeland and Denmark, which, he said with a smile, “is a lot softer”. But happily he cannot report any uncalled for aggravation when out and about in Glasgow, where he has set up home with his wife and two children.
“Of course I have come across Rangers fans as well, but it has not been abuse or things like that,” he said. “They just wish me bad luck, things like that. Things like that you can take, so far it has been respectful.”
He admits he sometimes seeks to avoid contact in the supermarket if someone looks as though they recognise him. “You try and look down and search for the milk or something! But the people in Glasgow, it’s always been friendly, so there’s no problem.”
Lustig concedes things likely won’t be quite so civil on Sunday. Celtic are aiming to extinguish Rangers’ hopes of a unique treble, while their opponents seek to take their biggest scalp since their journey back to the top flight began.
One thing Lustig does know: it is bound to be a more difficult test for Celtic than the last meeting between the teams, 14 months ago. “I haven’t seen much of them [Rangers], I’ve not watched a full game,” he said. “You see bits of them on Sky Sports. This year they won promotion and they didn’t last year so you would think it will be a tougher game this time.”