IT ALWAYS seems the sort of thing a captain is obliged to say when he claims his team’s thoughts were focused on a regulation league game rather than drifting towards a huge European encounter that will immediately follow it and define their season. Yet, when Celtic stand-in skipper Charlie Mulgrew offered this up on Saturday at Tannadice, it didn’t seem like flannel. Not least because, for so many of the side that put Dundee United to the sword, tomorrow’s Champions League play-off decider in Malmö is a game that they have little chance of participating in.
That is the beauty of giving most of your first picks the day off before asking them to make a 3-2 first-leg lead count in the quest for club football’s promised land. The less attractive aspect can be the understudies failing to gel or failing to produce. That happened to Celtic in Ronny Deila’s early days, at Inverness last August, but there was never any hint of a repeat here. Mulgrew, with his armband-wearing status making him the man to provide motivation in the pre-match huddle, made sure of that.
“A lot of what I tried to say to the players [in the huddle] was about making sure attitudes were right,” said the stand-in for the rested Scott Brown. “A lot of my experience through the years was about these kinds of games. They can be very tricky and you’ve got to approach it with the right attitude and do the simple things well. I think we did that – and that’s what I was trying to say to the boys before kick-off.
“You have to put Tuesday to the back of your mind. Dundee United was a big game for us, a huge opportunity for a lot of people to play and show that they can step in at any time. The whole squad will be needed and we showed against United it was the right choice. This was as much the main game as Tuesday. All the talk was about the Malmö game – but all of our focus was on producing the right performance against Dundee United and getting the result.”
Mulgrew may be one of those who does a double shift over the United and Malmö games. It will probably depend on whether Deila decides the Scotland international can offer more of the defensive nous required than left-back rival Emilio Izaguirre. Leigh Griffiths, whose goal flurry continued with an early strike at Tannadice that showed his quickness of thought and movement, is a banker since perhaps he is currently Celtic’s most vital player. Seven goals, two against Malmö, have pushed him into Scotland manager Gordon Strachan’s thinking for a frontline role against Georgia and Germany in next month’s Euro 2016 qualifiers.
With Mikael Lustig unlikely to be fit, Deila also has to pick between Efe Ambrose or Saidy Janko at right-back. The 19-year-old Janko impressed in that role at Tannadice. Meanwhile, the one dodgy moment for Celtic in the encounter was Ambrose rashly steaming into a challenge on Scott Fraser to concede a penalty that Chris Erskine converted to make it 2-1 late on in a first period dominated by the visitors. Ambrose is often picked on as an easy target, but equally he often does himself no favours. His aberration, while stationed at centre-back on Saturday, was the latter.
After the mistakes that allowed Malmö to nick a 95th-minute second away goal last Wednesday, Deila needs players who can remain switched on throughout. It was put to Mulgrew that eight months of work will be distilled down to 90 frenetic minutes in the Swedbank Stadium. He didn’t disagree, though rejected the notion that missing out on the Champions League would represent failure. “Everything does come down to this,” he said. “We’ll prepare right, as good as we can, leave no stone unturned. We’ll be ready.”
United, and especially Mark Durnan, were magnets for misfortune on Saturday. Celtic were too good for them to produce a result atoning for the execrable 4-0 loss at Hamilton the previous week, but it didn’t help the home side’s cause that Durnan inadvertently knocked the ball into Griffiths’ path for the first, and scored the second when he clipped a Kris Commons ball-in past his wrong-footed keeper Luis Zwick.
Yet 23-year-old Durnan, whose centre-back partner was the 20-year-old Coll Donaldson in a team that featured two teenagers, didn’t hide afterwards, and agreed to a request to meet the media. “It’s been two bad results, that’s it,” said Durnan when it was suggested his club have endured a rough couple of weeks. “It’s about how you bounce back. The results will come. We’re working hard in training and in matches that count and that’s where we’ll be judged but the results will definitely come.”
Durnan will rarely be so unlucky as he was at the weekend and his team’s misfortunes were topped off by Callum McGregor making it 3-1 with a shot that found goal courtesy of a sizeable deflection. United have to ride out these rancid times and tomorrow Celtic must find a way to ride into the Champions League sunset.