There will be all manner of weighty issues hanging on Celtic’s hosting of AEK Athens in the first leg of the clubs’ Champions League third round qualifying tie next Wednesday. It says everything about club captain Scott Brown that he will blanche at the idea that a ginormous personal milestone for him could figure among them.
Yet, that is very much the case. After leading his team out as they unfurl the league flag marking their seventh consecutive title prior to a Premiership opener against Livingston tomorrow, Brown will roll into a European game in which he will become the first Scot to play 100 of them.
The ultimate competitor will puff out his chest and put on his meanest game face for a qualifier in which Brendan Rodgers’ men must find a way to claim an advantage before heading to Greece, as they seek to negotiate the four rounds that were placed between them and a third straight appearance in Champions League group stages.
Brown will make it his mission not to betray any signs of weakness but, in reality, he will be patching himself up for another European sortie in currently struggling with an Achilles problem. For his manager, whom the player said this week he would trust with his life, Brown is on the verge of centurion status in cross-border competition precisely because of his willingness to put his footballing life on the line in such fashion.
“He has had an issue with his Achilles, at the same time as he did last year in all fairness, but he is fine,” Rodgers said yesterday. “He will be in to recover today and he will soldier on like he does and play himself out of it. I think it is just a case of getting through it over these next two to three weeks and hopefully it will be fine.”
Brown hasn’t looked entirely fine in the opening qualifying rounds of the Champions League and, in part, that reflects the expectations that he will be driving the club on in these pivotal encounters.
“I think that he is getting recognised now for the great career that he has had, and is having,” Brown said. “He is a wonderful leader. To play that number of games you have got to be available so it is a great testament to how he looks after himself and his fitness. He has made himself available for all these games. He is a wonderful example for all our players, both senior and youth. His leadership qualities and his drive and hunger to play is admirable. Hopefully he has got many more.
“He has just got this in-built love of football and love of the game. You get to that stage in your life and your career where you know you aren’t 21 or 22 and the brain starts to talk to you a little bit more and you recognise that you need to maximise every time you train and every time you play. He is a mature guy now and he appreciates it a lot more. He is just embracing it all. He has been brilliant in my time here I have to say. I am so proud that he is the captain of this club.”
The Champions League consumes all at this stage of the season, but they are not empty words from Rodgers when he states that the league remains his team’s “No 1” competition. The support might crave Champions League group stage football but they wouldn’t be crowing if it came in a title-losing campaign.
Rodgers says he will have to “balance” the competing challenges his team face in the next couple of weeks... at least. It could mean some fringe players featuring against Livingston, with the Irishman stating that “11 players won’t play all the games”.
Beyond that, and reintroducing the returning World Cup players Dedryck Boyata, Mikael Lustig and Tom Rogic, it was put to Rodgers that the early close of the English transfer window – it shuts in midweek – could offer Celtic opportunities for a transfer “jackpot”.
“Time will tell,” was his cryptic response.