IF CELTIC are to achieve what would be a notable victory against Inter Milan over two legs, you suspect they will require to have Scott Brown available to play in both matches.
The midfielder’s influence on the Scottish champions has been as obvious this season when he has been on the sidelines as it is when he is dictating operations from central midfield.
Brown’s absence through injury was a significant factor in Celtic’s stuttering start to the campaign which included the dismal performances and disappointing results in the Champions League qualifiers against Legia Warsaw and Maribor.
The 29-year-old’s return to fitness and optimum form has been equally crucial in the improvements effected in recent months which see Ronny Deila’s team still on course for a domestic treble and in the knockout phase of the Europa League.
Brown will lead them into action for tonight’s first leg of the last-32 tie against Inter at Celtic Park in the knowledge that he is a booking away from a suspension which would rule him out of the return at the San Siro next Thursday.
The Celtic captain has previous, of course, when it comes to collecting costly European bans. In October 2013, a foolish kick at Barcelona’s Brazilian forward Neymar earned him a red card and a three-match Uefa suspension.
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While Brown will never compromise his often attritional style of play, he admits that experience has had an impact on how he will seek to avoid a needless caution tonight.
“I wouldn’t say it changed me as a player but it forced me to try not to do something stupid,” said Brown. “It came at a time when we had the chance to go two games without defeat against Barcelona at home. But after I was sent off, they went on and got a late goal and maybe I could have stopped that situation.
“You learn from every experience. If you ask other people who have been sent off for silly things in the Champions League, then they will say the same. There was hardly any contact with Neymar, but it was something I did. It was one stupid moment in my career and hopefully there are no more.
“I’ll approach the Inter game like any other. I get booked every game anyway! Seriously, it’s hard knowing that you maybe don’t want to make that tackle but you need to. If it comes along, it comes along. I’ll just need to deal with that after the 90 minutes.
“It’s hard to change. It is the way I’ve been brought up to play, it’s the way I enjoy playing. For me to go on to improve, I need to keep doing what I’m doing and get better at other things as well.
“Over the years I have chilled out a wee bit. We’ll just wait and see what happens on the day. I know you can’t get away with things because there are too many cameras around. I wouldn’t say I’m more streetwise now. It’s just about being smarter and getting older. You realise that if you do get booked or suspended for something then it doesn’t just affect me, it affects the team as well.
“Hopefully the opposition can’t wind me up, knowing I’m on a booking, but you can never say never. For me, it would be fairer if the bookings were wiped after the group stage and you started with a clean slate again. But the rules are the rules and you have to abide by them.”
Brown is a survivor of the Celtic side comprehensively outclassed in their last two-legged European knockout tie against Italian opposition, the 5-0 aggregate defeat in the last 16 of the Champions League against Juventus two years ago.
“We lost the first leg 3-0 at home and it was really tough,” recalled Brown. “They didn’t sit back, they pressed us high up the park and forced us to make mistakes.
“Inter will be the same so we can learn a lot from the Juventus game, even though there is not many of us left who played that night.
“We will need to have a different mindset than we had in the past. It has been really good of late, we are playing attractive football and scoring goals. Everything has been positive and hopefully we can take it too the next level because Inter Milan are another level. It will be a big task for us but we are all looking forward to it.”
Deila’s main selection issue tonight concerns playmaker Kris Commons who was able to train yesterday but is still not fully recovered from the thigh injury he sustained almost two weeks ago. Recent signings Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven could both feature.
“We will take no chances with Kris,” said Deila. “If he can’t play against Inter, he will be ready for the weekend. Stuart and Gary have already shown me in training and in matches that they have the skill for this level.
“I think it will be a tight game. Inter are very compact with a lot of good runners, a bit similar to us. Winning the midfield is vital and then be good on the ball so we can get out of crowded areas. But we’ll have to defend as a unit for 90 minutes. We need to do it for long periods and this will be a test. We have to press the game, that’s important as we are at home and we have to put them under pressure. But we’ll need to deal with different situations within the match.
“The difference between facing an average team and a good team is that, if you make mistakes, you’ll get punished. Inter are very clinical when they get the chance and, at this stage, we need to be clinical too.”