Brendan Rodgers hails ‘top class’ Ryan Christie

Celtic's Ryan Christie. Pic: SNS/Craig Foy
Celtic's Ryan Christie. Pic: SNS/Craig Foy
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Breaking club records has come naturally to Brendan Rodgers since he became Celtic’s manager in the summer of 2016, with an Invincibles’ campaign being followed by a double treble and racking up 12 derbies against Rangers without defeat.

Last weekend he became the first manager to bring seven consecutive trophies to Parkhead and, on Thursday, he has the opportunity to add becoming the first Celtic side to reach double figures in points in a European group stage to his list of achievements.

Succeeding in that task would also guarantee involvement in continental competition after Christmas. Having beaten Rosenborg home and away and prevailed against RB Leipzig in Glasgow, a draw against Red Bull Salzburg on Thursday will be sufficient to take them into the round of 32.

Given the quality of the opposition from Austria and the Bundesliga, Rodgers would regard that as a creditable outcome.

“I’d have taken this scenario at the start of the group, absolutely,” he said. “All you can ask for is to have it in your own hands. Thankfully, going into the last game, we have that. If we can come through, it would be absolutely brilliant for us. We’ve faced three good sides in the group – two champions of their country and a top Bundesliga side.

“It would be a great achievement to make it past Christmas. I said to the players at the start if they got ten points they would come close. We have a chance to finish with ten or 12, and that would be great.”

Rodgers made seven changes to his Betfred Cup-winning side for Wednesday’s 1-1 draw at Motherwell but admitted that the form of midfielder Ryan Christie – a peripheral figure just six weeks ago – has made him undroppable.

“He’s played so many games and you do think there might be a point where you need to take him out,” he said. “But he’s just enjoying it so much and deserves a huge amount of credit for his talent and mentality.

“In this run, he’s shown he is a top-class operator. He hasn’t just done it domestically in the league and finals, he’s also done it in Europe.

“Ryan was outstanding against a top-class Leipzig team and his Scotland appearances have added to his confidence.”

Salzburg may have already qualified as group winners but Rodgers does not anticipate that they will take their foot off the 
pedal.

“Absolutely not; they see Europe as an opportunity beyond their domestic league to show their qualities,” he said. “For some of their younger players, it’s an opportunity to do that. They’re a good team – well structured, good speed, youth and experience in there.”

Yet Rodgers was at pains to point out that the Austrians, unbeaten at home or abroad this season, will also be facing a markedly different side from the one they comfortably vanquished two months ago.

“The last two Europa League wins go back to the way we work and it’s all about reinforcing our style of play,” he said. “In the last two years, our success has been built on a very clear, defined way of playing.

“We’ve regained the style and culture of how we play and have shown against Leipzig and Rosenborg that we are a good team. We haven’t just got results; we’ve also been exciting to watch.”

With central defenders Dedryck Boyata and Kristoffer Ajer sidelined due to injury, Croatian Jozo Simunovic is looking forward to continuing his partnership with countryman Filip Benkovic, the £13m loan signing from Leicester City he once partnered at home with Dinamo Zagreb.

“He’s a quality player and we played a little for our last club together as well,” said the 24-year-old. “So this is us reunited. We know each other really well so we just need more games to get ourselves more compact and make our understanding better but that will come, for sure.”

Simunovic also believes that the unique ambience of a big European occasion at Celtic Park can unnerve Salzburg’s big-hitters, just as it did with the likes of Sergio Aguero and John Stones two years ago.

“If our fans can have an effect on Manchester City and other teams we’ve played in the past few years, I’m sure it can have an effect on Salzburg as well. Why not?” he grinned.

“Obviously, it’ll be an amazing atmosphere – it’s the final game in the group stage, so it’s going to be big. We’re not thinking about settling for a draw – we have to play for a win.”