MIKAEL Lustig will share football pitches with football’s triumvirate of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic across the next six weeks. For the Celtic right-back, the experiences will be painful.
That is no comment on the potential outcomes when the Swede’s path crosses with the game’s galacticos in the Champions League and in World Cup play-offs. Rather, it is related to the fact that Lustig is prepared to live with the ill-effects of an inflamed hip to put body and soul into potentially one of the defining periods of his career.
The ailment dogged him when he arrived at the club two years ago but has become troubling again of late, the player needing to be substituted during his club’s win over Ajax in midweek. “We have talked about doing something about it but we have so many games with Celtic and Sweden, so we are going to talk about it again after December,” he explains. “The options are to have a rest and hope it gets better but it may be I have to have an operation, though it would not be a big one. It would be OK after two or three months. I only feel it towards the end of games. It is fine at the start but gets a bit sore. It’s discomfort rather than serious pain.”
The trouble for Lustig is that, if Celtic and Sweden are successful in the next month, then there is little or no time for him to have the operation this season. “If we reach the World Cup I have to think about that,” he says. “But I am a Celtic player and need to see.”
He suggests that surgery may be unavoidable. “I am only 26 and need an op at some point if want to play on till [I am] 34 or 35.”
The prospect of Lustig – an increasingly pivotal player on two fronts – not playing in massive games for club or country is clearly more agonising to him than any physical affliction. Little wonder. Celtic could all but guarantee a Europa League spot if they win in Amsterdam in 11 days’ time. There will then be the small matter of attempting to secure Sweden a slot in the Brazil finals with the World Cup play-offs that will pit his Ibrahimovic-inspired nation against a Portugal that can boast Ronaldo. And all that before AC Milan, Mario Balotelli et al, visit Celtic Park and Neil Lennon’s side travel to the Nou Camp home of Messi.
To have a late 2013 to tell the grandchildren about, Lustig will have to quell the sometimes unplayable Ronaldo, who he will find himself directly up against in the forthcoming play-offs. Or else, Ibrahomivic will have to prove even more unplayable. Like all, Lustig regrets that one of these players will not be producing their sleight of foot in Brazil next summer. Like the rest of us, he can’t know which one, with his 32-year-old team-mate having “never been better” than right now. Ibrahimovic might be a moody, mercurial talent to some, but to Lustig he is simply misunderstood.
“He is a great guy, and the captain of our team as well,” Lustig says. “I don’t think anybody has a problem with him away from the field. It is unbelievable taking him on in training. Sometimes he does things that you have never seen before – like the goal against Bastia the other week when he kicked the ball [with the back of his heel] when it was about two metres up. I think he is the only player in the world who could do that.”
Ronaldo might demur. “He is in great form right now as well. Of course it is going to be hard but it is not just going to be me – if you are trying to stop a player like that it needs to be everybody together. I faced him once before, when I was with Rosenborg. We lost 4-0 but I don’t think he scored. You need to try to enjoy the situation, not worry and think ‘s***, Ronaldo is so much better than me’. I think we’ve a chance.”
Ahead of this, he has the small potatoes assignment of today’s trip to Firhill. Yet that has its significance with, in a Rangersless top-flight, Lustig never having played a Glasgow derby before. Moreover, if Celtic avoid defeat it will make for the first time they have remained unbeaten across the first quarter of a league season since their 25-game record top-flight winning run a decade ago under Martin O’Neill in which Lennon was a key part.
After league losses blighted their early domestic form last season, the Celtic manager has learned how to manage his resources for both the bread and butter and the jam games. It is no coincidence how much more focus, in the tone of his language, he has placed on giving league games their proper place. “[Celtic’s relatively poor domestic form last season] was probably because it was my first time in the Champions League as well,” the Celtic manager says, also acknowledging the need to “acclimatise” with no Rangers in the league. “[The Champions League] was a very important thing for us last year. I’m not saying we’re an old hat at it now but we are more experienced – and the players are too. I wasn’t happy with last season’s points total [or] some of our performances before and after the Champions League. There was an emphasis on rectifying that this year. We’re on a decent unbeaten run and want to maintain that. It’s not a massive record but it’s there to be preserved.
“It’s about momentum. The funny thing is [in 2003-04 ] we started with a draw at Dunfermline on the first day of the season. That’s probably the best Celtic team I played in. We were on a really good run, scoring a lot of goals as well. We were awesome.”
Funnily enough too, the 24th game of that run was a 4-1 victory at Firhill and was the last time Celtic played at the ground in the west end of Glasgow where Lennon resides. A year-and-a-half earlier, the venue also provided an occasion that stands out. Having seen him barracked at every away ground at which he played, the Thistle fans – who like to present themselves as football aesthetes – clapped him as a show of solidarity in the week he retired from international football following a death threat before he was to play for Northern Ireland.
“I did get a wee ovation from the fans that day,” he says. “I probably drink with most of them in Tennent’s… they’ve probably been to the theatre.”