Brendan Rodgers would be happy if Celtic draw v Anderlecht
But there are times when pragmatism has to take precedence in setting targets for the Scottish champions, which is why Rodgers, pictured, will happily settle for simply avoiding defeat at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium in Brussels on Wednesday night.
Even before Celtic’s 5-0 humbling at home to Paris Saint-Germain on matchday one of the Champions League group stage, it was widely accepted that the best case scenario for Rodgers’ squad in the tournament this season would be third place in the section and progress to the last 32 of the Europa League beyond the turn of the year.
With Bayern Munich expected to join PSG in the top two slots in Group B, the focus for Celtic is on their head-to-head clashes with Anderlecht if they are to achieve their aim.
So while Rodgers won’t write off his team’s chances of picking up points elsewhere, Wednesday’s assignment in Belgium and then the return fixture against Anderlecht at Celtic Park on 5 December which will conclude the group stage campaign are crucial in his eyes.
“Yes, a draw would be a positive result in Brussels,” he says. “You can’t control the other games but if you go away from home and get a positive result, it’s good. You always want to win but if you get a draw and no-one’s gained on you? You’ll take that.
“The fact that it may come down to a contest between Anderlecht and ourselves for third place doesn’t intensify the situation, it creates a simplicity to it. We understand that these games will be important. There’s obviously other games to play in the group but, certainly, having this game and recognising what we’d like to do after Christmas in Europe this season, then this game and the return against Anderlecht will be important for us.
The Belgian champions, who lost 3-0 on matchday one to Bayern, have endured a tumultuous start to their season which saw Rene Weiler sacked as manager following a series of poor results.
Nicolas Frutos, a 36-year-old Argentinian who was a hugely popular striker at the club from 2005 to 2010, has been placed in temporary charge.
“You never know, the interim manager may come in and give them a lift,” said Rodgers. “He may come in and change the system. We will look at them and look at their last couple of games under him and plan accordingly.”
The most obvious threat to Celtic will come from Nigerian striker Henry Onyekuru. The 20-year-old was on Rodgers’ radar before he moved from Eupen to Everton in a £7 million deal this summer, the Goodison club immediately loaning him to Anderlecht for the season.
“We were never really close to signing him,” said Rodgers. “Onyekuru was a player who came to our attention and we watched him. But at the time the money was going to be too much, really. We’d seen him play. In Belgium you’re always trying to gauge it because the league splits and a lot of his goals were scored in the lower half of that.
“I liked him and when I saw him as a 19 year old his numbers were high for a winger in respect of the league he was playing in. He’s very dynamic, very quick. But we never made a bid, he was just a player who came into our thinking because of his goals. But he was one clearly looking to go elsewhere.”
With most of Belgium’s leading players currently operating in Europe’s biggest leagues, there are no household names in the Anderlecht squad. Goalkeeper Matz Sels, who is on a season-long loan from Newcastle United, and midfielder Leander Dendoncker were their only players included in the most recent Belgian squad named by Roberto Martinez.
For Rodgers, a recent encounter with his fellow former Swansea manager Martinez at a testimonial game for the Welsh club’s defender Alan Tate, proved instructive on the recent success story of Belgian international football.
“They have a real golden age of players right now,” said Rodgers. “I had a good chat with Roberto on his role as Belgian manager and how he is enjoying it. He says it basically comes down to education.
“They really get them in early on, from 14 years of age they are into the schools and they know what they are doing with their system. It’s all based around their development in every facet of the game, and they take it seriously. It’s not rocket science, if you invest money into it and educate players in the best way that you can, then hopefully you can produce the players.
“They are clearly in an era now when they have big, big talents. If you watch Belgium play, you would think you were watching a Premier League team play. A high majority of them are playing in the Premier League and then you have the boy at Atletico Madrid who plays wide for them [Yannick Carrasco]. Big, big talents.
“Roberto is really enjoying the work. It’s obviously a change when you come out of club football and into international football, but it’s a great experience, and when you can work with that level of player as well it really helps.”
Rodgers also took the opportunity to press the claims of Celtic defender Dedryck Boyata for a place in Martinez’s squad for next year’s World Cup finals in Russia.
“Dedryck is very much in his plans,” he added. “Roberto really likes him and that was one of the topics of our conversation.
“Dedryck’s history coming through with Belgium is very good. He obviously made a move to Manchester City and didn’t play so much there, so that has hindered him. But he has come out of that now, and if he can keep a level of fitness and availability, then there’s no doubt for me that he will be in the World Cup squad.”