Central or Eastern Europe, Central Asia, South Caucasus or the Middle East – wherever today’s Champions League play-off round draw takes Celtic, Brendan Rodgers has never been more confident in the ability of his squad to deal with whatever assignment they face.
When the plastic balls are swirled around the glass bowls at Uefa HQ in Nyon at 11am, the Scottish champions will be paired with one of five possible unseeded opponents in the final hurdle before the group stage of Europe’s elite club competition.
Czech champions Slavia Prague, Rijeka of Croatia, Kazakh side Astana, Qarabag of Azerbaijan or Israeli champions Hapoel Beer-Sheva will pose different questions of Rodgers’ men than those they answered in their opening ties against Linfield and Rosenborg.
The Celtic manager believes all five will represent a step up in class on both of those opponents and also in comparison to any of the teams he encounters in the Scottish Premiership. But the rate of his players’ development over the past 12 months leaves him harbouring no doubts about their potential for significant progress in Europe this season, with group stage involvement now guaranteed in either the Champions League or Europa League.
“What was important for us was to continue to mature in Europe, to secure European football for the development of the team,” said Rodgers as he reflected on Wednesday night’s 1-0 win over Rosenborg in Trondheim. “Of course, the highest level we can do it in – the Champions League – is the preference but ultimately we want to improve as a team. That comes with playing against different opponents and top-class European clubs. It’s going to get harder in the next round, that’s natural. You play some teams who are halfway through their season during these qualifiers. There’s sometimes a feeling that Celtic are expected and should get through. But you need to pay a little bit more respect, I think, to teams from other European countries who are much better than Scottish clubs, with all due respect.
“They are never easy games at this time of the season. The next game will be tough. It was a tough tie against Rosenborg. Over the two legs, we made it look easy but you have to work well. We’re getting better. You saw that in Trondheim.
“Last year in the qualifiers, we certainly never played with anywhere near that level of composure. It’s about finding confidence in a style of football and ensuring that when you play against these teams you show that you progress. I was really pleased with the maturity of the performance. That will come from playing in Europe. These guys are on their way to becoming better and it’s great to see as a coach. I’m in a better place now with the team. What we have now is a football idea.
“I expect us to work well now when we play. We went away last year more in hope that mentally we could find a way to get through because tactically we didn’t have the right idea. But that was first class against Rosenborg. Everyone made out it was a real pressure game, asking if we could cope, if we could play that way in what was a big test, but we did well.”
James Forrest delivered the precious away goal for Celtic in Norway and Rodgers feels the 26-year-old now has the consistent levels of application to his profession which is required to fulfil his potential.
“He very rarely misses training but the key for James was pushing him in training and making sure the engine didn’t switch off,” explained Rodgers.
“You want to improve as a player so that demand has improved him. You can never have a lazy day and he knows that. He’s been absolutely brilliant for me, right across the front of the team, and at 26 you can see he’s enjoying his football. He was outstanding against Rosenborg, both in a central role where he moves freely and knows how to play it, and when he goes wide he takes us up the pitch. His goal was sensational really. There’s huge expectation on James. I’ve watched him since he was a young player breaking into the Celtic team and there’s no doubting his talent. But I think he now feels he’s playing in a team with one brain. It’s not just about him. He has a role to play and he plays it very well. You can see he’s maturing.”
Rodgers, meanwhile, has dismissed suggestions Scott Sinclair may experience a more difficult second season at Celtic. The reigning Player of the Year has yet to find his optimum form in the early weeks of this campaign.
“It depends on the expectancy on Scott,” said Rodgers. “He scored 25 goals last year. He might score 15 goals this season but create more and become a better player.
“That’s still progress. We’ve got lots of goals in this squad and don’t rely on certain guys. But like all the top players, Scott is pushing to go to the next level.”