Celtic’s Callum McGregor cites night of Red faces as Euro warning
Callum McGregor knows as well as anyone the potential for a pitfall now Uefa have confirmed next season’s European qualifying ties will be one-off games.
The Celtic midfielder was on the bench as Celtic went down to Gibraltar part-timers Lincoln Red Imps in Brendan Rodgers’ first game in charge in July 2016. Making it an even more frustrating night for him was the fact he did not get on to help rectify matters after Lee Casciaro scored what proved to be the winner shortly after half-time. McGregor was an unused substitute alongside goalkeeper Leo Fasan, Mikael Lustig and Patrick Roberts.
Fortunately, Celtic managed to clamber out of the hole they had created for themselves and took care of their opponents in the second leg at Celtic Park, where they won 3-0 to go through to the Champions League third qualifying round.
With Uefa having cut ties down to only one leg when Champions League qualifying begins next month, there will be no second chance on offer for teams who are struggling to find their form so early in the season.
Celtic – and Rodgers – might not have recovered to win the treble that season after the blow of being knocked out of Europe in such embarrassing fashion. “European football can be pretty unforgiving at times,” said McGregor. “Sometimes you have to experience these things to learn and you have to make sure you bounce back as a group of players. We learned that lesson and I’m sure there is a core of players still here who were involved that night.”
As well as McGregor, Scott Brown, Nir Bitton, Tom Rogic, Leigh Griffiths, Ryan Christie and James Forrest remain from the squad stripped for action.
One positive as far as Celtic are concerned is that with qualifiers having been pushed into August, they will at least have some league games under their belt before tackling the great, good or, as was the case with the Lincoln Red Imps, the minnows of European football. Their false start in Gibraltar was their first outing of the 2016-17 campaign.
“The lessons were learned from that night,” said McGregor. “I’m sure the message will be that we have to be on our game from the start. The lads will know that anyway, but it’s just a case of reinforcing it, so that we don’t get caught cold.”
There is a 50 per cent chance that Celtic will have to play their first qualifier, and any that follow, away from home. Only the play-off round will be played on a traditional home-and-away basis. Fortunately for Celtic, their European away form has improved since Neil Lennon’s return as manager. They took part in eight away matches in Europe last season and lost only once – against Cluj when they fielded a shadow side. Of these eight games, four resulted in victories, including a 2-1 win in Rome against Lazio to reach the Europa League last 32.
“It’s straight knock-out now,” said McGregor. “In some ways it’s a positive as you know what is required in the 90 minutes. On the flip side, you know if you don’t play well there is no recovery. It intensifies the situation as you will have to be at it on the night.
“Likewise, if you do that you are straight through. It works both ways. We’re a group that likes to focus on the positives. The preparations will be good and we’ll back ourselves to adapt to the one-leg affairs and get through.”
Celtic will again be able to count on Scott Brown to marshal them. The skipper, who turned 35 last week, is in the last year of his contract but remains as influential as ever.
“We had to get the numbers three and five out or we wouldn’t have fit all the candles on the cake!” said McGregor with reference to last week’s birthday celebrations at Lennoxtown, with the players having now returned to training. “He’s incredible. He’s getting older but looks younger on the pitch. Every season he has this desire to keep pushing himself and the lads. It’s an unbelievable testament to his professionalism. It’s second to none.
“He’s certainly inspirational to guys like myself,” he added. “It gives us hope if we look after ourselves, we can prolong our careers. Broony has just turned 35 but he’s still at his peak level and these last couple of seasons he’s played like a 23-year-old. He’s been excellent. We want to follow in his footsteps.”
If it is to be Brown’s last as a player – as increasingly unlikely as that seems – then he could bow out by winning an unprecedented domestic quadruple made up of a league title, League Cup and two Scottish Cups. Last season’s competition needs to run into next season due to the Covid-19 shutdown, with Celtic still to face Aberdeen in the semi-finals on a date to be decided.
“It’s funny, we could win four this season,” said McGregor. “It might be a good pub quiz question.
“Obviously, the Scottish Cup is still in the background and it could be an exciting year. But all of that is a long way off. The focus is on getting back playing football again and then take it from there.”
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