BEING a flag bearer for Scottish football in Europe can be a lonely and unforgiving responsibility.
It is a role Celtic have carried out by themselves in reaching the group stage of the Champions League or Europa League in each of the past four years, while the rest of Scotland’s participants have been routinely and often ignominiously eliminated in the qualifying rounds.
So amid the steady diminishment of the country’s standing in European football, Celtic captain Scott Brown admits he feels a wider sense of duty to try to drive his team on to a significant and successful run in the Europa League this season.
“Everyone is trying to put Scottish football down so we have to be the backbone of Scotland and try and keep things going,” said Brown as he looked forward to tonight’s Group D fixture against Dinamo Zagreb at Celtic Park.
The tournament may be widely regarded as a poor relation to the Champions League, which Celtic missed out on by losing to Maribor in the play-off round, but Brown insists he and his team-mates will lack nothing in motivation as they try to emulate their predecessors who memorably reached the final of what was then the Uefa Cup in 2003.
“We need to try and look forward to this campaign,” he added. “One of the best seasons in the club’s history was in this competition.
“So it’s still a huge game for us, it’s Europe at the end of the day. We want to play against the best and, at this stage, this is the best we can face. We want to try and improve and go as far as we can in the tournament.”
Bolstered by their 2-2 draw against top seeds Red Bull Salzburg in Austria on matchday one two weeks ago, Celtic are keen to build on that result by re-establishing a run of home victories in Europe.
Brown is hopeful the Europa League can prove as beneficial to Ronny Deila’s development as Celtic manager as it was for Neil Lennon when his team emerged with credit from a group including Atletico Madrid, Rennes and Udinese in 2011.
“I don’t see why not,” said Brown. “We had some good results away from home as well as in Glasgow that season. That kind of kicked off us doing better away from home, which had been a problem in the past.
“But we have to start getting things going at home as well. We have to kick on and really get the fans behind us to try and get as much support as possible.
“We need to try and get back into that winning mentality. I think we went a season or two in Europe where we pretty much cleaned up at Celtic Park – and that was with teams like AC Milan coming here.
“It shows that we can do it. If we all put our heads together, start playing and show that we have the right attitude then we can definitely do it again. There is a great bunch of lads in the dressing room and we all want to work towards that. You can’t beat a European night at Celtic Park and we are all looking forward to it.
“We did really well over in Salzburg. They are the best pressing team I’ve ever faced, so to get a draw over there shows you we are moving forward and getting better. We defended well as a team and managed to create chances as well.
“We could have scored more goals on another night, although Craig Gordon was outrageous at the other end with some of his saves. But we are trying to improve and it’s looking good. It’s coming together for us.
“We’ve watched videos of Dinamo Zagreb this week and it is going to be hard. They are a good physical team who want to play football, so it should be a good game. They play a 4-3-3 and pass the ball, but they are also strong and fit and will want to get into our faces. But we’ve got good players in our dressing room who will want to do the same to them.”
Celtic will give a late fitness check to Serbian striker Stefan Scepovic, who is in line to replace the ineligible John Guidetti up front, but have already been boosted by the news that playmaker Kris Commons is able to return after missing Saturday’s Premiership win at St Mirren with a strained gluteal muscle. Jason Denayer will also be back to partner Virgil van Dijk in central defence.
Manager Deila senses a more positive mood among his players than there was before some of their earlier European fixtures this season.
“I think the mood is better than it has been,” said Deila. “We have had a good start to the Europa League and have had some good performances recently.
“We are looking forward to the game. I think it is a big test for us. We are going to play a good team at Celtic Park. I am really looking forward to it, the same as the players.
“I think Dinamo’s level is equal to Celtic and is quite similar to Salzburg. They are a good team and we have to be at our best to win the game.
“If you don’t believe, then you have no chance. So that is unbelievably important. We believe we can beat Zagreb. I know that. In the training we focus on it. There has been a good attitude and I can see that the boys are looking forward to the game.
“It is very hard for me to say if there was a lack of belief earlier in the season. I came straight into it. I felt that of course the players wanted it and had the heart to do it. But we weren’t good enough. That is how we have to see it. That is why it is very important to play in Europe, to see what level we are at. To test ourselves against the teams that we want to play against, hopefully next year as well.”
l Celtic are 11/10 favourites to get their first win in the Europa League, when they meet Dinamo Zagreb at Celtic Park tonight.
Scottish bookmakers, McBookie.com, also offer 8-11 that Celtic will qualify for the knock-out stages.
Paul Petrie, McBookie.com spokesman said: “With Salzburg red hot 1-6 favourites to qualify, it looks a straight fight between Celtic and Zagreb for the other spot, so this is a must win game for Celtic.”