'If Celtic score one, we'll score three'

IT SHOULD have been a good day for Graeme Souness to be in one of his infamous bad moods.

After all, his influential captain Garry Flitcroft had just been ruled out of his plans by an ankle injury suffered in training, while defender Martin Taylor failed a fitness test on a hamstring strain.

If the Blackburn Rovers manager hardly had his troubles to seek ahead of tonight’s UEFA Cup return with Celtic in Lancashire, however, it certainly wasn’t evidenced by his defiant and often jocular disposition in the Ewood Park media theatre yesterday afternoon.

Souness may be a goal and two key men down going into the second leg of the intriguingly poised second-round tie but he couldn’t have sounded more optimistic about his team’s prospects of a place in tomorrow’s third-round draw.

If Celtic score once, Blackburn will score the three they would then need to progress was the blunt message from the former Rangers manager. At the very least, he claimed, Rovers will reverse the Parkhead scoreline to take the tie into extra time.

"We are a team best suited to going forward," said Souness. "If we concede a goal it is not the end of the world because of the players we have in the team. I would be confident we would score three goals.

"We generally get after teams at Ewood Park and if we get after Celtic as we normally do, then we can cause them problems. That’s not to say they won’t cause us problems, but we feel we can make home advantage count and score one goal to take it into extra time."

Central to Souness’ positive attitude is the availability of the three players he regards as his most potent weapons, strikers Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke and attacking midfielder Damien Duff.

A series of injuries have conspired to deny Rovers the services of all three for a sustained spell this season but their manager expects great things of them tonight.

"They are our three most exciting players but have not played together for any games back to back for any period of time," said Souness.

"Those three excite me when I watch them in training but, so far, either one or two of them have been injured at various times. I’m hoping that this game is the start of a run of several games they will play together and, given the midfield we have behind them, I would imagine they could cause problems to most teams."

Having relished the high-profile and national television coverage afforded to this tie, Souness is keen to build on the widespread plaudits which came his team’s way for their performance in the first leg at Parkhead.

There is, he believes, even better to come from his team.

"Hopefully, by 10pm on Thursday night people around Britain will be saying ‘Bloody hell, that Blackburn are a good team’ just as they did two weeks ago," he said.

"We will try and play the same way we did in Glasgow, but I expect a very different game because I expect a very different Celtic. They will try to do something to stop it being the same as it was first time around.

"I expect us to be aggressive when we are going forward and aggressive when we are defending as well.

"Celtic are sitting with a 1-0 lead and it will be interesting to see how they view the situation. What’s their attitude? To sit on their lead, try and nick something on the break, or just go out and try and get a second goal? We’ll have to see how it pans out.

"I don’t think they will play a different system, they will still go with their 3-5-2, but they may sacrifice someone to take care of certain people in our team.

"I can’t see us having as much of the ball as we did in the first game. We controlled the game for a ridiculous amount of time but we didn’t make the Celtic keeper work hard enough. But we can play better, in terms of scoring goals and not conceding a goal.

"We think we are in a great position to go through and some really big names come into the competition in the next round. I’m sure Martin O’Neill, like me, wants to play against those teams.

"I repeat what I said two weeks ago, the UEFA Cup is not a priority for us, but when kick-off comes on Thursday night I will want to win."

Souness is unconcerned by Rovers’ apparent form slump since the first leg, culminating in a rather fortunate 1-1 draw at Southampton on Saturday which initially prompted some harsh criticism from the manager.

Yesterday, he was more reflective and forgiving.

"I’ve got good players, honest players and they know what they didn’t do on Saturday," he said. "We know why we didn’t play well on Saturday and I would expect us to be very different tomorrow night.

"We sat and watched the video of Saturday’s game on Monday morning, and we were actually not as bad as I thought we were. It’s not a problem."

Only once did Souness threaten to get irritable yesterday, responding to a question over skipper Flitcroft’s revelation after the first leg that the manager had described the contest as "men against boys".

Flitcroft made the comments to several journalists in the media area outside Parkhead two weeks ago and Souness is clearly concerned they may serve as extra motivation to Celtic. "I didn’t say it and I never heard it in our dressing-room," he said less than convincingly yesterday, before returning with some relish to the attention he will receive from the 7,500 Celtic supporters who will pack into the Darwen End of Ewood Park tonight.

"It’s not about what people say to me," he smiled, "it’s all been said before and I’m a big boy. I can handle it."

David Thompson, Blackburn’s most eye-catching performer at Parkhead, was a somewhat bemused and peripheral figure alongside Souness at yesterday’s media conference, although he was a convenient straight man for his manager when one Scottish hack made a less then deferential reference to Souness’ Edinburgh roots.

"Edinburgh is the capital, David," Souness gleefully informed his player, "and most of these chaps come from Glasgow where there is a slight inferiority complex."

Win or lose tonight, that is something Souness will never suffer from.