There are few grounds in the country that Brendan Rodgers would want to avoid more with his team in need of a pick-me-up than Rugby Park. Across two and a half seasons in charge, no Scottish team has given Rodgers more problems than Kilmarnock.
A Celtic bruised by their 2-0 beating at the hands of Valencia on Thursday night in the Europa League last 32 will be looking to avoid a third straight defeat at Rugby Park when they take to the Ayrshire artificial pitch they have no love for. Their 5-1 cuffing of Steve Clarke’s men at Celtic Park in December was the champions’ first win in their five games against his team.
Rodgers has admitted that his squad would need to do some soul searching in the aftermath of their error-strewn, energy-devoid display against Spanish opponents superior in every department. On a run of seven straight domestic victories without conceding a goal, though the Irishman would be entitled to have growing doubts over his team’s ability to progress on the continent, he has had little reason to question their ability to remain unimpeachable on the Scottish front.
“The beauty of this group is that we have always tried to be honest in reflections on the game knowing there’s another game soon. We didn’t show our true face [against Valencia], but that’s how it goes. We now have to get ready for Sunday,” said the Celtic manager. “We’ll look at how everyone is but we’ll make a few changes just to re-energise the team.
“It’s tough with a game a couple of days later but these boys have been magnificent over the last two and a half years with how they pick themselves up. It’s a credit to the guys and we won’t be feeling sorry for ourselves. We’ll re-focus and get back to how we usually play.”
Celtic’s difficulties at Rugby Park in the past year Rodgers attributes to the manager in charge there and the manner of the surface that the Ayrshire club play on.
“It’s one where Stevie’s teams are compact and tight and there’s never normally many goals down there on a slow surface,” said Rodgers, a consistent critic of synthetic surfaces which he felt no need to reiterate on the back of PFA Scotland releasing a petition by its members asking for them to be banned. “The pitch can affect the speed of the game, but just get on with it. We have to deal with that and a strong and committed team with good quality. We have to be ready.”
Celtic appeared ready to mount some sort of challenge to Valencia on their own turf the other night but it simply did not materialise in any way, shape or form. Stalwarts such as Scott Brown struggled even simply to avoid regular calamity.
“It shows how a number of mistakes affect the momentum at that level,” Rodgers said. “It was basic mistakes – passing the ball out under no pressure and we had to try to respond. It can affect your belief and after a good 15 minutes we built the pressure on ourselves. It wasn’t the crowd – they were magnificent – we put it on ourselves.
“That’s when you need the personality to take the ball with one, two or three touches and ease your way up the park against a good team where there’s not a lot of space. They sat in tight and we had to try to work it rather than forcing it. If you move them across they still have the agility to get across and close the gaps.”
Closing the gaps that would allow Celtic even to be a middleweight European club are beginning to look unbridgeable. Parkhead was once an arena that teams have a certain apprehension about visiting. In the Rodgers era, six times away teams have knocked off comfortable victories. On Thursday night, the Mestalla side helped themselves to two goals and then brought on a £35m Portuguese winger, Gonçalo Guedes.
“It’s a different sport, isn’t it?” said the Celtic manager. “We have to get on with it and just do our very, very best. You only have to look at the quality of teams you meet at this level. Listen, we’ve done great to get out our group with the teams that were there [in Salzburg, Leipzig and Rosenborg],” he said. “We accept the challenge – it’s a huge challenge. Every game is a learning game for us.
“Valencia are a good side in their own domestic league and at this level of competition. We can be better – it’s as simple as that.”