League status does not matter in this clash of ancient rivals, Anthony Stokes tells Moira Gordon
LIKE a distance runner who has spent the last few laps merely jostling for position only to hear the clanging of the bell, Celtic head into the next stage of the season aware that they need to find something extra.
While the first part of the campaign has been about tactics and bedding themselves in, now is the time when only winning matters, as they face the task of overhauling Aberdeen, maintaining their interest in both domestic cups and trying to outdo Inter Milan to extend their participation in the Europa League.
The players and management believe that they can see out another term as Premiership champions and they are unafraid of reputations or the challenge posed by the Italians on the European stage. The biggest task will be living up to the lofty expectations of their fans in the upcoming League Cup semi-final with Rangers, the first Old Firm clash in nearly three years.
“It is a one-off game and I think the form book goes out the window,” says striker Anthony Stokes, “especially when it is a rivalry of this magnitude, especially with us not playing them for so long.
“For me it has always been the biggest game. It is great to play in Europe but with the rivalry and what it brings to the city it is a special occasion and something I am really looking forward to. This could arguably be the biggest because of the time that has passed since we last played them.”
Some will argue that, due to liquidation and upheaval in Govan, the clubs have never actually faced each other, but whether a new entity or an old enemy, the rivalry persists. Some players are already imagining themselves as the folk heroes. Stokes’ strike colleague John Guidetti has predicted he could get a hat-trick, a boast that relieves some of the intensity and teases a smile from the Irishman.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he said that he was going to score 20 in the game!” he says. “Listen, one thing he doesn’t lack is confidence but I will be the happiest man in the world if he does score a hat-trick. It doesn’t matter who scores as long as we win the game.
“I have had fans coming up and telling me if we don’t win four or five-nil then it will be a bad result! But you have to be realistic, it is a one-off game and it is going to be a fiery atmosphere. I am sure everyone is going to fight for every ball like you do in an Old Firm game, and I am sure there will be a bit of niggle to it as well.
“Listen, I would take 1-0 every game, every day of the week, the most important thing is to win the game. I genuinely couldn’t care less if I play against Rangers and don’t score if we win the game. To be fair I haven’t seen too much of them – the last game I saw was when they played Hibs a few weeks ago but that is irrelevant. Coming into a game like this, form really does go out the window, comes down to who wants it more on the day and who can execute under pressure.”
The most important thing is to head into the fixture buoyed by a series of positive league results, according to the player and his manager Ronny Deila.
Chasing down Aberdeen, they know that, with games in hand, their fate remains in their own hands. The feeling in the camp is that last week’s trip to Gran Canaria was reinvigorating and has given them the springboard for the remainder of the season but Deila says that finding a way to intimidate visiting teams will be key.
He wants Celtic Park to be the scene of as much misery as possible for opposition sides but he believes his players are capable of instilling that fear without him having to rely on his old tricks to whip the fans into a frenzy.
He squirms slightly when quizzed about his pre-match ritual at Strømsgodset where he kicked advertising boards as he tried to get the blood and the stadium pumping.
“But I never hurt my foot because my technique was so good,” Deila says with a smirk. “But it’s not so easy to kick the boards at Celtic Park. We didn’t lose at home for three years in the league and I have only lost one in the league at Celtic Park – and that’s one too many.
“What you do on the pitch is the most important thing and if you play well and have energy then it will be tough on our opponents. If it’s a good atmosphere at Celtic Park, it’s tough for our opponents to play.”
Having returned to domestic business with a win at Hamilton yesterday, they play Motherwell in their first home match of 2015 on Wednesday, before rounding off the week and their League Cup warm up, with a trip to Dingwall on Saturday.
All are vitally important in the quest to chase down Aberdeen but if they are to go on and wrap up the title and also progress in Europe, he knows the games at Celtic Park could make all the difference.
“We are working to make our home ground a place where other teams don’t like to play,” says Deila. “That’s what I was used to with my former club. It takes a bit of time to get that going. It’s about tempo and constant improvement.”
But while he knows there is more room for improvement, he insists not even Inter and their array of world-famous names are causing him concern when he looks ahead to what he describes as an “exciting month”.
“Inter Milan is a very big club. Mancini is coming in and he’s getting a lot of money. It is going to be a very tough match for us. But in the window, you don’t just get good because you get new players, they also have to fit into your system and be ready so I think we have a good chance against Inter.”
Even with the likes of Lukas Podolski?
“I’m not jealous. I know what I have here and I am happy with that. We have those kind of players in Scotland too. And there is nothing I fear, when I watch Inter Milan.
“We have worked hard all season to get to this position and now we are there. Now we have to kick on from this and be even better than we have been.”