Mikael Lustig keen to gamble on making his mark at Celtic

CELTIC manager Neil Lennon will hope Mikael Lustig times his tackles as neatly as he has his arrival at the club. When the defender began negotiations with Celtic in November they sat 15 points behind leaders Rangers.

By the time the defender sampled Parkhead for the first time on Wednesday night he was watching what could prove a significant changing of the guard.

Lustig had only been in Scotland for little more than two hours before he settled down to watch Celtic defeat their arch rivals in a typically boisterous clash, thereby overtaking them at the top of the league. “I had only heard people talk about the Old Firm and saying it was going to be the best game in the world,” he said yesterday. “I questioned that. I said: ‘Really?’.”

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“When I saw it, though, I realised how amazing it is,” he added. “In Norway, you have a few fans behind the goals who are cheering, but it was the entire stadium. If I am being honest, I watched the spectators more than the game.”

This wasn’t meant to be treated as a comment on the quality of the match itself, although there is more than a suspicion that many outwith Scotland consider the Old Firm match to be a side dish to the frenetic atmosphere. The respected magazine France Football, for example, recently described the Old Firm experience as being among the most essential in Europe. “And then the match begins,” the writer added.

Most would accept that Wednesday’s clash was not a feast of football, although, as Lustig pointed out, there were mitigating factors. “It was really windy and the conditions were difficult,” he said. “I know it was a really important game as well, so some of the players were maybe a little nervous out there. It was more of a fight out there on the pitch, but the three points is always the most important thing.”

Lustig has revealed himself to be a lucky charm so far. Perhaps he should add a clover to the variety of emblems inked into his arms. “I don’t have as many as Daniel, but he is nine years older,” smiled Lustig. He was making reference to his heavily tattooed compatriot Daniel Majstorovic, the man who helped sell him on a move to Celtic. So, too, did his father Mats, although he was less specific about his son’s choice of team. He simply wanted another excuse to visit Scotland.

“He really likes whisky and he has been to Scotland in the past on a whisky trip with his friends,” said Lustig. “He has been a few times and I know he watched Celtic when he was here. I don’t think he went to a Rangers game, but it was a long time ago. He always brought his whiskies home and he has a large collection of them in Sweden. He loves it.”

Lustig is a very young looking 25. He has, though, recently become a father. One tattoo pays tribute to Lucia, his young daughter, while an anchor and a compass salutes his home town of Umea, a northern Swedish port. “I have a compass pointing north, to show me where I am from,” he explained.

Celtic fans will hope he exhibits a keener sense of positioning when he begins his Celtic career. Although he officially becomes a Celtic player tomorrow, Lustig is not expecting to figure in the manager’s plans for Monday’s match against Dunfermline Athletic. The defender hasn’t played since the end of November, when Rosenborg played their last game of the Norwegian league season.

“I had a really long season with Rosenborg and the Swedish national team so I have just been resting my body and my mind over December,” he said. “Over the first few weeks I will just train by myself and with the team. In two or three weeks, I would hope to be able to play.”

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The downside to timing his arrival for the week in which Celtic took command at the top of the league is that the need for Lustig does not seem as urgent. Lennon, when asked to outline the player’s talents in November, said he could play at either right-back or centre-half. Lustig made it clear yesterday that he prefers to be used in the former position. Johan Mjallby, another compatriot, yesterday agreed with this contention. “I wouldn’t put him in the centre-half bracket,” said the assistant manager. “Mikael sees himself as a right-back and he’s done that most of his career.”

He does, though, give Celtic the option of experimenting with a back three. “Mikael has a great engine and likes to go forward, which suits the way we play,” added Mjallby. Breaking into the first-team is more of an issue due to Lustig’s international ambitions with Sweden. He needs to be playing regularly prior to the European Championships at the end of this season. But first he needs to finds a way past Cha Du-Ri and Adam Matthews, both of whom have played their part in Celtic’s run of nine successive league victories. Matthews, indeed, excelled at right-back against Rangers on Wednesday.

“I know I am going to face real competition here,” said Lustig. “I know it’s a gamble but it was going to be a gamble whatever team I went to. I wanted to go to a team that plays my kind of offensive football and that is why I think Celtic is the perfect step for me.

“I have not been given any assurances that I am going to play here. I think Neil Lennon and Johan Mjallby want the best 11 to play. That is fine by me.”