The need for reinforcements has been made plain by Brendan Rodgers.
At the weekend, the Celtic manager presented it as his duty to “push” the board for signings that will strengthen a squad he feels is diminished from the treble-clinching one of last season. By that, the Irishman didn’t mean the loan deal for Australian teenage winger Daniel Arzani expected to be completed with Manchester City in the coming days. Prising John McGinn from Hibernian and, possibly, forking out for Aberdeen’s Scott McKenna was what he had in mind.
Yet, the cakewalk of a 3-1 victory in the Premiership opener with Livingston demonstrated that simply reintroducing some old faces can elevate his team to a level that can encourage ahead of their perilous Champions League third-round qualifier that will bring AEK Athens to Glasgow on Wednesday.
After four qualifying ties, the seven-time champions’ flag day brought first real flutters for Tom Rogic and Mikael Lustig – eased back following their World Cup final exertions – and a first competitive start since his December leg break for an impressive Johnny Hayes.
Australian schemer Rogic and Swedish right-back Lustig, pictured, proved in Russia they can mix it with the best. For all that Lustig’s deputy Cristian Gamboa acquitted himself well in the qualifiers against Rosenborg, the Swede improves Celtic’s defensive stability – likely to be seriously tested as they seek to gain a convincing first-leg avantage over AEK.
Rogic’s balletic ball skills and sleekness, meanwhile, help knit Celtic’s final-third players into a piercing and ingenuity-displaying unit. His early header, followed by a part in the second scored by Odsonne Edouard midway through the first period, should have set off a goal rush. A penalty conversion just after the break proved the only further score, though. For Celtic that is, with converter of the award Olivier Ntcham picking up an ankle knock that has brought concern for his participation against AEK just before Scott Robinson netted for Livingston in added time.
The doubt over Ntcham proved the only blot across the afternoon for Rodgers, who praised a bright cameo from Leigh Griffiths. The Celtic manager has some thinking to do over whether to pitch Dedryck Boyata into the Champions League qualifier only ten days after he returned from a summer break delayed by his contribution to Belgium’s World Cup third-place finish. That aside he must consider that his side are in decent shape for the AEK assignment.
Lustig , who admits it wasn’t easy holidaying then refocusing following an “amazing” World Cup experience that ended prematurely with a suspension before the quarter-final loss to England, certainly does. His manager might believe his squad weaker than a year ago, but the 31-year-old is convinced they are stronger in one respect. An aspect that could prove crucial against Greek opponents who have not played competitively since May and won’t begin their league programme for three weeks.
“It is hard [at this time of the season], especially against the likes of Rosenborg who were in the middle of their season,” he said. “You think they should be fitter than us and especially in the second half over there. The first half wasn’t good but they tired and we started to get control. I think we are more fit now than this time last year.”
Seizing control in the first leg of a European qualifier is something that Celtic have accomplished with aplomb in the Rodgers era: as witnessed with the wins of 5-2, 5-0 and 3-1 over Hapoel Beer-sheva, Astana and Rosenborg.
“We have played a lot of great games in the first leg, when we have almost finished the tie,” said Lustig, “So hopefully we can do something similar.”