Old Firm clash a marker for next season, says Johan Mjallby

DICK Advocaat is back in town and though it is Dutch side AZ Alkmaar who now occupy his thoughts an Old Firm game is on the agenda.

• Johan Mjallby in his playing days at Celtic. Picture: TSPL

Johan Mjallby, the Celtic assistant manager, yesterday looked ahead to next Tuesday's league clash with Rangers and warned under-performing Parkhead players that it will be used a marker for next season.

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Those Celtic fans who attend this evening's friendly fixture with Alkmaar will first have to face the sight of a strutting Advocaat reminding them of days when the likes of Chris Sutton, Henrik Larsson and Mjallby himself locked horns with the self-styled Little General.

Martin O'Neill was also often in the opposite dug-out but tonight Neil Lennon is aiming to take another step towards being given the chance to make the impact of the man who signed him. O'Neill stepped in ten years ago after the ill-fated John Barnes era and oversaw a remarkably quick transformation in fortunes. But there was not the clear-out that might have been anticipated and Mjallby, too, is cautious when asked to contemplate the extent of surgery required to turn Celtic into championship contenders again next season.

He bristled slightly when asked whether Celtic could do with as many as eight new signings in the summer following an abject campaign. But he did conceded that a new backbone was required.

"I would say we probably need three or four new players that have the right character for the game," said Mjallby. "That is important for a team like Celtic. You need the right characters to have a chance to win the championship."

Although it is far from certain that both he and Lennon will still form the management team next season the Swede has identified next Tuesday's Old Firm clash as being a good place for current players to start showing their mettle. He knows that a good showing does not guarantee success, just as a poor one is not necessarily a signal of future toil and trouble.

After all, Mjallby played in what was to all intents and purposes a meaningless Old Firm fixture in March 2000. Celtic went to Ibrox determined to make amends for a dreadful season and lost 4-0. They did, however, wrestle back the championship from Advocaat's side the next season. But Mjallby has sensed that the current set of players know it is not only the future of the interim management team which has still to be decided, and where better to show they have what it takes than the high-octane environment of an Old Firm fixture.

"It's a big game," pointed out Mjallby, as attention drifted from tonight's hastily-arranged friendly. "The players know it's a very big game for them. We haven't won against them this season. Even if Rangers are already champions it's still a very important game for us to show the supporters we have the desire and passion for a game at this level.

"I look at the defence because that's my strength and I hope we're going to be very solid and we see the danger when it arrives," he continued. "We're getting better at that. There's still a lot of work to do but we work very hard as a team."

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But while an improvement – Scottish Cup defeat to Ross County apart – has been detected since the departure of Tony Mowbray, the jury is still firmly out on many of the former manager's acquisitions. More established members of the side have also done little to enhance their reputation this season. Not only do Celtic face ending the season trophy-less, but they have also gained just a single point in three previous clashes with Rangers. This has made it harder still to catch their consistent Ibrox rivals.

"It's not only Neil Lennon and myself who have to prove ourselves to the board," pointed out Mjallby. "There are a lot of players that need to prove they've got what it takes for games like this. These games define a season although it's a bit harsh to say it's only these games that decide where the title will end up.

"But we've not been good enough away from home, Rangers have. They've been very hard to beat, we haven't when it comes to certain games. But especially for supporters after such a disappointing season it's important not to only win the last three games but also show in a big game like this that you're really, really proud to wear the Celtic jersey. That's something supporters are going to look at."

Spirit was something which was placed under scrutiny during the Barnes regime, so Mjallby knows what it is like to be part of a team which stands accused of such a desperate crime in football terms.

But the player's own determination could rarely be questioned. Never mind excelling in Old Firm matches, he left few prisoners in friendlies. Both he and Lennon will be seeking guidance regarding their players' worth tonight also. Their own ambition to be at the club on a long-term basis depend on the efforts of those out on the pitch.

"I am definitely enjoying it," Mjallby said. "It has been a great experience so far. I have enjoyed working with the players. It is a great bunch here. Whether I am going to be here, I have not got a clue. It is not for me to say. It is obviously up to the board to take this club forward in the way that they think is best for Celtic. (But] If they ask me, I would definitely say 'yes'."