Celtic midfielder Callum McGregor and his team-mates will give Hibernian the utmost respect when the teams meet in the first BetFred Cup semi-final tomorrow lunchtime.
Three weeks ago Neil Lennon’s side came closer than anyone else this season to ending the Invincibles’ undefeated sequence against domestic opposition under Brendan Rodgers (which now stretches to 59 games) during a 2-2 draw at Parkhead.
John McGinn had scored for the second time to put the visitors 2-1 ahead in the 77th minute only for McGregor to match that total three minutes later and salvage a point.
McGregor had also scored the 79th minute equaliser in the 1-1 draw at home to St Johnstone in August but he claims that he feared their record was slipping away against Hibs.
“You look at when we played against Hibs recently when they went 2-1 up with 13 minutes to go and pretty much everyone in the stadium looked at each other and thought: ’This could be the one…’ But we got back in the game and scored and might even have had a penalty as well.
“We know how good they are. You only need to look at the great game they gave us at Celtic Park. I’m sure it will be the same on Saturday. Both teams are at the top of the game, so it should be exciting.”
McGregor also had no hesitation in pinpointing McGinn, pictured, as the player most likely to pose problems for Rodgers’ side tomorrow.
“He’s a top player and he got a couple of goals at Celtic Park, which will be great for him,” he claimed. “We know he’s a big player for them – he has been for a couple of seasons – and he’s certainly one we’ll need to watch.”
Ironically, just five days after that draw in Glasgow, national team manager Gordon Strachan elected not to use either player and they were frustrated spectators on the bench as Scotland drew 2-2 in Slovenia to end their hopes of claiming a World Cup play-off place.
“Obviously, I think both of us would have loved to get on the pitch but things like that happen in football; you just take it on the chin and move on,” he said.
McGregor was an unused substitute again when Celtic were handed a footballing lesson by Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena and he admits it was difficult to watch as the Bundesliga champions won 3-0 while easing up.
“Of course it’s tough, especially when you go to these big, big clubs and see how they pass the ball and move it,” he said. “They’re on a different level so it’s hard for us to go there and compete with that.
“But we’re always trying to make steady progress, we’re gradually improving and I know that, eventually, we can get to that level – and go toe-to-toe with them.
“We learn from that type of game, seeing the level these guys are at and we hope to get closer to that; as a team, as individuals, we want to be able to test ourselves properly against these teams.
“Everything is up a notch; the level of play, the quickness of the game and everything else but, the more you play at this level, the easier it becomes, especially the home games, when you have all the fans behind you. That makes it slightly easier for you to go and get after teams.
“When you are away from home it’s different because you have to hang in there, test your resolve and maybe hit on the counter or whatever. Ultimately, it’s a big test for where we are at the minute, and where we came from last season.
“We went to Barcelona and it was a tough night there [in the 7-0 defeat] but these are all learning experiences for us as a group; we’re relatively new to this stage.
“Of course, you need to learn – that’s part and parcel of the game. You watch these top teams and you watch the best players, you learn from them and take it into your own game.
“That’s why we believe we can get there, especially the way the manager wants us to play. We’ll become more and more confident playing in these big games.
“You saw it at the tail end of last year when we went and put in a great performance at Manchester City, and then we went to Germany and put a great performance in [against Borussia Monchengladbach].
“I think you can see a steady improvement all the time.”
McGregor was a signed professional when Lennon was in charge at Parkhead but he has no doubt that the Irishman will be desperate to end Rodgers’ hopes of another treble.
“I was a bit younger when he was the development squad manager,” he said.” Then he took the first team job and I was in and around it, but never quite got the chance to play.
“He will be desperate to make it to the final. You look at him when he was at Celtic as a player and he had that knack for doing it on the big occasion. Obviously, he will set his team up well to try to give us a good game.
“We’ll need to look at that, see what they are going to bring to the table and combat it.”