Hampden has figured significantly in Erik Sviatchenko’s Celtic career even before today’s Betfred League Cup final against Aberdeen. For one, the Danish defender curses he was denied a perfectly legitimate goal there in the semi-final victory over Rangers last month that set up today’s showpiece.
Yet the 25-year-old has plenty more serious matters to curse about regarding visits to the national stadium. Following his £1.5 million move from FC Midtjylland in January, he made his debut, from the bench, in the excruciating League Cup semi-final undoing by Ross County. Three months later, his only goal in Celtic colours so far merely proved a precursor to a penalty shoot-out exit at the hands of Rangers in the last four of the Scottish Cup.
Last season’s cup calamities under Ronny Deila don’t appear to bother Sviatchenko as much as they might do. The new broom swept by successor Brendan Rodgers seems to have brushed away painful memories.
“I think it is two worlds to be honest,” the cerebral centre-back said of Celtic this season compared with last. “It’s like night and day now between then and our current situation. I can’t even remember what happened back then because since then there have been so many great things.”
Yet Sviatchenko believes these moments are being racked up for more than the obvious footballing contrasts between the Deila and Rodgers versions of Celtic. “One thing is how we play but also socially people are really helping each other off the pitch; they are getting close to one another and that is a really important thing the manager did when he came in. He combined everything, brought everyone together and people now want to do the best for each other.
“The positivity in the squad shines from everyone – that has been a big change. And it’s the way we play as well. We are the best team when we go on the pitch now, when last season we could lose a game and struggle after 70 minutes.”
Now Scottish opponents struggle to cause Celtic to lose a goal. It is 688 domestic minutes since they last conceded one. They have won 14 of their 15 domestic encounters, with only a late equaliser in an encounter they dominated in Inverness preventing them having a 100 per cent record on the home front across three months. Sviatchenko has formed a rock-solid partnership with Jozo Simunovic, even as the Croatian has been deployed in only one game a week as the club protect him following knee problems.
The duo – expected to line up together at Hampden – even stood up well as Celtic were beaten 2-0 by Barcelona on Wednesday, a result that condemned them to bottom place in their difficult Champions League group and ensured European football will not be hosted in Scotland again this season.
Possible fatigue from Celtic’s midweek exertions has been one factor in people talking up Derek McInnes – as he must – playing up Aberdeen’s prospects this afternoon. However, with his side already having lost twice to Rodgers’ men this season, all evidence points to a first cup success for a Sviatchenko, who experienced two final losses in Denmark.
“I think Aberdeen continued their work from last season,” the defender said. “At Celtic Park we had a game where we dominated throughout and won quite easily [with a 4-1 win in August]. But, again, at Pittodrie it was a different game. I remember I said they were bullying us, but we bullied them back [to win 1-0 in October]. I think we also showed in that game that we were able to have that aspect in our game, that we can be nice with the ball but when we have to fight we fight. But they are tough competition and I think it will be a good final.”
Not one wherein the Dane expects to pick up a third losers’ medal, though. “I feel we are much less vulnerable now. We know our shape, fitness is so good that we can bomb on for 90 minutes and sometimes the opponent will maybe tire after 70 to 75 minutes. That’s where we need to be the best team.
“The sort of stat [688 minutes without losing a goal domestically] is always nice to have. It’s having the confidence going into a game of knowing that you are so difficult to beat because you are so difficult to score goals against. If no-one is scoring goals against us we will probably win because we score goals. As a defender a clean sheet is always your goal to take away from a game. But it’s not only defenders, it starts off at the strikers because it needs to mean something for the striker to keep a clean sheet. I think that is something that is put into the team: that it’s important to everyone, not just the defenders.”
It is important, too, for Sviatchenko, whose father is an artist, to see the bigger picture. He genned up on Celtic past before he made the move ten months ago and recently bought a club history to learn more, which he sees as a matter of “respect” for the team he plays for.
This afternoon provides him with the opportunity to book a place in any future archive material, with Celtic seeking to secure the club’s 100th major trophy. “It would be really big. To be a part of club history is something that always means a lot to a player,” Sviatchenko said.
“I was part of five in a row and for me it was quite big to be a part of that. If I were to be a part of the 100th trophy that would be something I’d always remember. It would big to achieve that.”