Callum McGregor could start his 40th game of season v Hibs

There is the prospect of Callum McGregor starting his 40th game of the season when the Celtic midfielder travels to Easter Road with his team-mates for their lunchtime encounter with Hibernian.

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers. Pic: SNS/Paul Devlin
Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers. Pic: SNS/Paul Devlin

McGregor, between his efforts for both club and country, has packed in a phenomenal amount of football since Brendan Rodgers’ men embarked on an ultimately fruitless pursuit of Champions League football with a jaunt to Armenia on 10 July.

The scatty events at Celtic Park on Thursday mean that European football will continue to add to the physical demands McGregor and co must juggle as they step up the quest for a treble treble.

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There can be a price to be exacted. And Rodgers, pictured, witnessed signs of that in the defeat by Salzburg in Celtic’s final Europa League group encounter, which did not prove fatal to their hopes of last 32 qualification because Rosenborg snatched a late equaliser against a Leipzig side they were jostling with for the runners-up berth in Group B.

Rodgers is not dismissive of the possibility of the dramatic, draining events impacting on his team’s exertions against Hibs.

“It’s tough [to go to Easter Road only a couple of days after the Salzburg game] but it’s that way because we have been successful,” said Rodgers. “That’s the way you want it to be and we just have to try and recover the players as fast as we can and get them as fresh as we can. Easter Road is a notoriously difficult place to go and they had their first win for a long time last week. We will be ready for a tough game.

“The players have put in such a big effort to the Europa League campaign. Against Salzburg, I thought we were a bit tired-looking at times. When you play against that level of opponent that are fast and quick, you have to be able to play through the pressure quickly.

“We just looked a fraction leggy and that’s because we have put so much in. We have played a season’s worth of games up till now and we are not even at the halfway point. The players deserve all the credit.”

No-one more so than McGregor, who his manager has said is never one to miss a training session, far less a game.

“With that number of games played, you can understand players can be a bit leggy but it also shows the character of the squad,” Rodgers said. “Against Salzburg, they kept going. When they are pushed they keep going and it’s an absolutely brilliant achievement for them to get through.”

The achievement was all the more commendable for the fact that it made for the first time Celtic had qualified at the expense of a team from one of UEFA’s five top-ranked nations from the 16 group campaigns they have contested across the Champions League and Europa League in the past two decades.

Following two seasons of Champions League football – the second of which brought a third place group finish that propelled them into the last 32 of the Europa League – the secondary continental competition was originally seen as something of a come-down. Ultimately, it has come up with a new source of cheer, though.

“It just shows you how difficult it is to do coming from a country like ourselves and the league we are in. Leipzig had been above Bayern Munich in the table [until last weekend] so it shows that we have been absolutely brilliant,” Rodgers added.

“It’s great for Scottish football, great for us and the staff. Year on year we are achieving different things in Europe. I think everyone looked at this group and saw it as tough and we’ve come through it. To finish with nine points over the course of the six games – we played some really good games, some not so good.

“We are certainly not perfect but we are improving and the guys are getting experience. Now, in the next round: can we go a stage better than last year? But to get out of this group was a big achievement. We want as many Scottish clubs as we can in European football. Thankfully we have gone through and we are representing the nation as well as ourselves. We are very proud to do that and we will give our best.”

The prospect of landing Chelsea or Arsenal in tomorrow’s last 32 Europa League draw would bring the promise of “brilliant nights” according to Rodgers. Despite this, he says that “it doesn’t matter” who his team are paired with. Sadly, that may be true of the likelihood of making it into the last 16 as an unseeded side.

The two English representatives, and Champions League drop-downs Napoli and Valencia look as if they would prove too much for Celtic. The same could probably be said of Real Betis, German sides Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen, as well as the likes of Benfica, Internazionale and their conquerors of last season Zenit St Petersburg. On what was witnessed in their games against Rangers, they might have more of a fighting chance against Villarreal, while Croatians Dinamo Zagreb, Dynamo Kyiv – the Ukrainian league will still be on winter shutdown come both legs of the last 32 – and Genk of Belgium offer the best chances of competitive encounters.