It is only natural for Callum McGregor to have special memories stirred by a Champions League qualifier against KR Reykjavik. Tuesday’s first round tie is a one-off affair due to the Covid pandemic and will bring the clubs together for the first time since they met in the tournament six years ago. Back then McGregor had just turned 21 and was back from a season on loan at Notts County.
He marked his Celtic debut with the only goal in the first leg in Iceland.
It feels like a long time ago, he says, but it now feels like a long time since Celtic last played anyone. The errant Boli Bolingoli’s quarantine-breaching jaunt to Spain has put a pause on the club contesting Premiership fixtures for almost a week and a half.
It has not put the squad on a downer, McGregor maintains, as he considers hooking up again with KR. “It’s only positive memories for me and I’m looking forward to going full circle [but] this is totally different circumstances with it being a one-off game so we’ll make sure we’re properly prepared and that everyone is up to scratch fitness-wise and there can’t be any mistakes on the night.”
Preparations have been thrown up in the air by the heel-kicking imposed on them subsequent to the draw with Kilmarnock a week past on Sunday. Yet this pales against the problems for their opponents in the lead-up to their trip to Glasgow.
A 2-1 home loss to FH Hafnarfjaroar on Friday night was their first game following a three-week shutdown required after a spike in coronavirus cases in Iceland.
Manager Runar Kristinsson has lamented that his team cannot get tuned up properly with no full training allowed, and the two-metre distancing rule in place for small group work-outs.
McGregor is insistent that the unwanted lay-off for Neil Lennon’s men won’t disadvantage them in such fashion. “In terms of actual fitness, I don’t think missing the games will be a major factor going into the qualifier,” he said.
“It’s more about match sharpness and decision making, after the turnover and recovery from games. We had played a couple of games and the boys were starting to find their feet and their level. But the quicker turnover of games from midweek to the weekend would have helped us in terms of sharpness.
“Instead we have a five, six day lead-up to the game so it’s a case of doing your fitness work and then tapering off. Our fitness shouldn’t be impacted too much but it would have been nice to have a few more games to get more match sharpness.
“It would have been nice to get back to playing quickly to make up for the disappointment of that day [at Rugby Park]. That would have been ideal but we are now looking ahead to the qualifier.
“It’s a nice game to have and we have to get it right on the night. There is big pressure on the boys to get the win and make sure we go through. But we look at that as a positive.
“We have trained well and we are confident about getting the result if we do the right things.”
The fact there is no safety net in Celtic’s quest to book a second round qualifying tie at home to either Ferencvaros or Djurgardens next midweek makes Tuesday’s assignment all the more delicate.
Over the past couple of weeks, McGregor has been feasting on all the Europa League and Champions League latter stage ties delayed by the pandemic now being concluded as straight knock-outs.
He doesn’t think the club can lean too heavily on their imperious domestic knock-out record – the quadruple treble-chasing side have won a record 34 straight cup ties – as they seek Champions League group stage football for the first time in three years.
“I have been watching the games every night and the two teams have to bring it because it is knockout football and the one that turns up on the night and plays well will win the game,” he said.
“It maybe makes it slightly different from a tactical point of view but we just have to focus on our game plan and the way we play. We will do our homework on Reykjavik properly and try to be positive, attacking and try to score goals.
“We have got a good record in the domestic cups and we can always draw on that experience. But as I have said loads of times, with knockout football if you don’t turn up you are out.”