If Brendan Rodgers had any appetite for apprehension, the Celtic manager could fill up on the footballing feast that awaits his side on Tuesday evening.
It is forever stated that an alchemy takes place inside the Parkhead arena on Champions League nights. A transformation that allows Celtic to rise to any challenge – even one as daunting as provided by this week’s visitors Paris Saint-Germain. Courtesy of unrivalled largesse in the global game, they have committed to spending £366 million on summer striking arrivals Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. The attacking quartet the pair will form with Edinson Cavani and Julian Draxler proved devastating first-time out with Friday’s 5-1 thumping of hosts Metz in which Neymar, Mbappe and Cavani scored.
Such other-worldy status for Champions League visitors is causing the special powers accorded to Celtic Park in Europe to bump up against a new reality. As financial differentials become ever wider, teams pursue victories in foreign climes with ever greater vigour. Hence the fact that the Scottish title-holders have won only one of their past seven home games in the Champions League proper and lost a total of five.
There were oodles to admire about the performances of Rodgers’ team in a hideously difficult group last year. A section which, like this one, pitched them against teams with tenfold their budget. Aside from the thrillfest of the 3-3 draw against Manchester City, a visit to Celtic Park didn’t prove problematic for opponents. Never before had Celtic failed to win a home game in a Champions League group campaign, or actually fared better on the road, but both were true last year owing to two away draws.
All told, Celtic shipped in 16 goals in their group. Their highest total across 10 such campaigns. Moreover, only a patchwork version of their hardly watertight defence from last season will be available to Rodgers against free-scoring PSG because of injuries to Dedryck Boyata and Erik Sviatchenko.
All this isn’t causing Rodgers to want to hide under the covers or give a thought to a defensive focus that has been the default in the club’s previous last 16 successes. He is a coach who would be sleepless under those same blankets if he were not true to himself.
“Our identity is important,” he said. “Of course you have to respect the opponent and the qualities they have. They are a team full of world-class players with great experience. And they’re in the competition looking to win it. That’s why that investment is there and that’s been their path for the last few years.
“But I’ve always been about playing without fear and ensuring they know they’re in a game. They will do when the whistle goes. But I always want us to really test the opponent. See how they feel under pressure. When you’re breathing right up against them, and if you can touch them then you’re pressing them.
“If they get out of the press, then that’s okay. They’ve earned their £600,000 a week! And they’ll do it a few times. But keep going back. Our identity is to play without fear whether it’s a Scottish Cup game, a Rangers game or an Aberdeen game. That doesn’t guarantee you a result but that gives you a chance.” It is a path well trod for Rodgers across almost a decade in frontline management. “I’ve always played that way,” he said. “My teams have always taken the initiative I like to think; Swansea, even as far back as Watford. I wasn’t in at Reading long enough as I got the sack but my teams have always had the feeling that they wouldn’t wait. We want to go after our game and impose our way.”
The 44-year-old was asked the other day if he had experienced an epiphany; a moment when he realised he had given into concern and caution and strayed from his football principles.
“I was at Reading [in 2009] and was away at Loftus Road and we were losing. The home fans were singing you’re getting sacked in the morning and then the Reading fans joined in. So the whole stadium was singing it. So that night we lost 4-1 and I was watching the team – bless them – and it wasn’t a representation of me. It was 4-4-2, it was stiff and static. And that was my fault,” he recalled.
“It was certainly a moment early on in my career that was important. I work a certain way as a coach, I have done since I was 20 years of age. With experience now, I know clearly that if you’re going to go down as a manager – and you normally do at some point – at least go down with your own vision.
“That was a big moment for me, probably the first like that. I have a preference to how I work. It doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong but it’s how I do it. That way is to play with no fear, impose in an attacking way and fundamentally to defend with aggression.”
The level of performance sought against PSG is the one that had Pep Guardiola’s men gasping for air. Which is the tallest order.
“Going into these games brings out a different part of our game,” added Rodgers. “Domestically we dominate, we counter-press, we get the ball and we create lots of chances. At this level we don’t have so many chances. This competition gives us the chance to work on a different side of our game, to counter attack. You won’t always have it your own way.
“There’s a wee bit of pain in there for supporters and players as you’re so used to dominating. But it’s the level. It’s understanding that you at times have to close off the middle of the pitch and set yourself up to break into spaces. That’s something we don’t have to do so much domestically. But at this level of competition it’s important that you can do it. And when you can, you have to stay calm and work it. The players a year on have a greater experience of this and how to play.”