A week may be a long time in politics but Brendan Rodgers isn’t convinced it will be a sufficient period of time for Zenit St Petersburg to negotiate the improvement in performance they need to prevent Celtic completing their passage into the last 16 of the Europa League.
The Scottish champions produced what Rodgers describes as a “near-on perfect” display of their own in Glasgow last Thursday to secure the 1-0 first leg lead they take into tonight’s return fixture under the closed roof of the Krestovsky Stadium.
Much has been made of how much of an effect the Russian winter break had on Zenit’s contribution to the match at Celtic Park, which was their first competitive outing since 11 December.
Rodgers feels that perception unfairly diminishes the manner in which his team delivered a result which gives Celtic a real opportunity to win a post-Christmas knock-out tie in Europe for the first time since they eliminated Barcelona from the Uefa Cup back in 2004.
The Celtic manager also questions the noises coming from the Zenit camp that they will be able to raise their game decisively in front of their own supporters.
“There’s only so much you can do in a week,” observed Rodgers. “After the game at Celtic Park, Zenit went to Rome for a few days training and now they’re back here. They themselves will expect to play better. They have to, when you look at the game last week. We were the real team of dominance in every aspect of the game.
“When you have big money players and they have made the investment Zenit have, bringing in the likes of Leandro Paredes, then of course they will want to show their true face in this game. But we will expect that. That’s not something that will surprise us. We know they are good players and they have quality but so do we and we showed that last week. If we can get to a similar level then we have a great chance.
“My view doesn’t change from before the first game. I think everyone would have said that this was a really, really difficult tie for Celtic and that Zenit would expect to go through. Everyone was clear on that. People will say they were unfit or whatever reason but I think that is a disservice to our players because they were brilliant on the night and maybe could have had one or two opportunities to make it even more convincing.
“Of course it’s going to be a test and a challenge for us. Any game at this level is. But we’ll really embrace it knowing this is a game we are always going to be in. It’s a dangerous game for Zenit because of our quality.
“We were near-on perfect in the first game. I’m hoping if we play to that level again over here, then we’ve got a great opportunity to go through.
“We played very well, we were very concentrated. When we do that, we can match a lot of teams.
“In a lot of the away games in Europe, if you take out the real superpowers that we’ve faced in my time here, then we’ve generally played pretty well.
“We don’t have to be perfect to win the game here but we know we need to be at a high level. For us, it’s a case of matching that intensity and aggression, staying calm and when we have the ball, to show our qualities. If we can play at the level we played in the first game, we can be a match for any team.”
Rodgers is certainly in far more bullish mood than he was before the first leg when he often appeared to be at pains to play down Celtic’s prospects of an extended run in the Europa League this season. There is no doubt he now feels they are on the verge of one of their most eye-catching successes under his watch.
“I’ve never really thought about what it would mean to me,” he insisted. “It’s more for the club and supporters. I’ve shown in my time here that I want to leave a legacy where we can continually improve.
“We have done that this year and this would be another big step, given the level of competition.
“I see the team grow and develop and improve. Okay, some of the numbers this year maybe don’t match last season but that was a historical season. There are still lots of great positives of where we’ve been this year and where we are as a club.
“If we can make that next step on Thursday night, then that will be absolutely brilliant for us and we can go on and focus on a last-16 tie. But of course there will always be an expectancy on the other team because of their standing and probably the quality that they have.”
With temperatures as low as -16 forecast today, Zenit’s decision to close the roof of the new home they moved into last summer has understandably been welcomed by Rodgers. The startling sight of locals walking their dogs on the frozen Neva River underlined the extreme conditions in St Petersburg.
“If it keeps the cold out, that’s great,” smiled Rodgers. “I’m looking forward to the experience in what I believe is a fantastic stadium. The pitch looks really good and that will suit us.”
Rodgers hopes Celtic can strike the right balance between protecting their lead and utilising their own creative threats in pursuit of an away goal which would add further pressure on Zenit.
“We know we can do that,” he said. “We can come to here and defend like we did when we had to in the first game, show the composure on the ball and we know we have quality players who can create chances.
“We would want to score here. Our idea is to go and win the game. If we can’t win it, okay, try not to lose it. That’s key. We believe we can score and that’s what we want to do. But it’s important that we keep our concentration. If we can do that and attack well alongside that, we believe we will score.”