Despite last season’s successes, Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers is already walking a European tightrope, writes Andrew Smith
Aseason starts for Celtic on Saturday. Brendan Rodgers’ men must take care that another has not ended by then. If Rosenborg are not overcome in the second leg of the clubs’ Champions League third round qualifier on Wednesday, it will be down to Rodgers’ side suffering their first competitive defeat since November, with any score draw good enough to take them to the play-offs.
If they suffered that one slip, however, in the domestic campaign to begin at the weekend – which will see Celtic defend a title won as part of an unprecedented, unbeaten domestic treble – the club would be left with a Ronny Deila-style season to embark upon.
If that sounds monumentally harsh on Rodgers, it is. It is equally undeniable that this is simply the tightrope that Celtic walk on in Champions League qualifiers, which the Norwegian discovered as his side three times lost their footing in them.
There is every reason to suspect, even allowing for the drabness and bluntness of Celtic’s display in the 0-0 draw against Rosenborg the other night, that Rodgers’ men will prevail. If they don’t, the Irishman knows people will have short memories. Defeats do that, he ruminated the other day when the topic shifted to the impossibility of his team replicating the record-breaking numbers he presided over in a season like no other in the history of Scottish football, which proved to be his introduction to the game in this country.
“I know the expectancy. Sometimes you can make a jump like we made last year but it shouldn’t be a jump that hurts the team or the club,” he said. “I learned my lesson with that at Liverpool. You go from eighth to seventh to second then all of a sudden you set expectations which become unrealistic.
“It is whether we keep improving that counts and there are always things to strive for. From a personal point of view, going into the small list of names who have won the treble was a huge honour. It means that when I leave here, there is going to be at least a bit of positive history to look back on as opposed to ‘he came in here as a supporter and he was hopeless!’ You never want to leave that way.”
Rodgers has only just begun and doesn’t want to leave the Champions League with another round standing between his team and a second straight appearance in the group stages of the competition.
He has rationalised the events of Celtic Park on Wednesday night, when the absences of strikers Moussa Dembele and Leigh Griffiths were acutely felt. It is hoped that the Scotland forward will be able to play even if not fully recovered from a calf injury. Rodgers backs himself to find the answers to the question posed by his team’s first blank since that loss in November, a 2-0 defeat by Barcelona. He is sure giving himself deliberation time will allow for a clarity of thought over the required game plan.
“I was always told ‘never pick your next team straight after the game’,” he said. “When you’re young and you lose or draw or it doesn’t go as you planned, you can tend to pick your team on the way home in the car. That’s dangerous, so I let it sit for 24 hours, speak with my staff, talk through the game, and when we watched the re-run there were so many positive aspects to the game.
“They’re a team who are used to dominating the ball and we pushed them back. Of course we’re not at the same level of fitness as them but we still showed a lot of good moments and created some half-chances.
“This part of the season, we won’t be at our fluent best, like last season, but we’re a lot better than what we were in terms of our game idea. We won’t be where we were three- quarters of the way through last season but naturally we’re trying to find our fitness and qualify.”
Hindsight doesn’t cause Rodgers to wish he had been more active in the transfer market until this point. “You want to bring in quality and quality’s not available at that time in the market we’re in. That’s a reality. Not unless you’ve got £80 million or £90 million to spend and you can do that. That’s the market we’ll be in, we’re always going to have to wait slightly if we’re looking for that extra bit of quality. Scott Sinclair never came in until the last weekend.
“Absolutely [timing is the danger] but quality takes that time. It’s unfortunate. Yes, ideally I’d have had a winger in here who can play as a striker. I don’t need another striker.”
Rodgers doesn’t need anything more within his squad to romp to another title, meanwhile. Asked if he felt other teams might get closer to his team – league winners by a 30-point margin – his answer was notable for a, surely, deliberate dismissive take on any challenge from across the city.
“Aberdeen were deemed to have a really good season last year, but they lost ten games. Ten. That’s a lot of games. They’ll want to be better,” he said. “Hearts will want to improve and Hibs are coming up. They’re a great club with a fantastic manager in Lenny, so they’ll want to be better. The likes of Jim at Ross County will feel that he wants to push again. And obviously Rangers will want to move on. It is probably going to be really competitive. My worry is to keep us moving forward.”
It is the ability to reach the promised land of the Champions League which will dictate the perception on that front.