Celtic defender ready for Russian test

Scenic and historic, the winding canals and picturesque streets of St Petersburg are unlikely to be glimpsed by Celtic on their travels next week. It will be a single-minded trip, with its sole purpose to simply continue the journey.

In that respect, Brendan Rodgers’ side head to Russia with more hope than even they may have anticipated at this stage of the two-legged tie.

Little was expected of Celtic when they parachuted, somewhat fortuitously, into the Europa League this term. Zenit St Petersburg might not be at the elite level of PSG, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and the other lucrative clubs that Celtic have rubbed shoulders with in the Champions League but their significant financial resources bracket them firmly above the Parkhead side.

The lead is slight but there is cause for optimism. The clean sheet secured on Thursday night was as vital to that as Callum McGregor’s goal and Mikael Lustig, one of the veterans now in the Celtic dressing room, acknowledged in the aftermath of the game that there is something for the Parkhead side to protect.

“Listen, Zenit need to go for it now so hopefully that suits us,” observed the Swede. “It’s going to be tough over there but the way we defended and attacked in the first-leg tells us we’re going to create chances over there.

“There’s obviously still 90 minutes to go but we have more confidence now that we did before Thursday’s game.”

It is a precarious lead and it will be interesting to see how Celtic approach the second leg given the balance of the tie; an away goal would mean Zenit would require three goals to go through while an early goal for the hosts could tip the balance again.

Key to it all is the clean sheet. The Parkhead defence have endured some torturous evenings in Europe over the course of the past two seasons but they had few anxious moments on Thursday.

The anticipation is that it may well be a different story in St Petersburg but Celtic’s intent will be to reproduce the kind of defensive obstinacy they showed on route to qualification for the Champions League.

There was patience, too, on Thursday at the opposite side of the pitch as Celtic probed and searched for openings before the craft of Charly Musonda opened up Zenit.

If there was any criticism of the performance it would be that Celtic did not reap that second goal that may have facilitated a more comfortable return leg. In any case, Lustig is confident that Celtic can learn from their recent European outings as they seek an unlikely passage into the last 16 of the tournament.

“We felt we needed a performance like that in Europe after our last few games,” said the Swede. “Obviously the PSG game was not good, Anderlecht was really bad, and then the Bayern Munich game was good.

“It felt like it was time for a big performance and three points.

“I hope we’ve learned from the things we’ve done well previously as well as the things we have done badly. Anderlecht was a good one.

“We didn’t play that good on the night but we didn’t let them create too many chances and when we got our opportunities we scored.”

The win over Anderlecht in Brussels back in October was Celtic’s only highlight of their Champions League campaign. By and large it was a bruising experience and the porous nature of the Parkhead side’s defence this season has been a perennial criticism.

“We’re Celtic players so of course we need to take the criticism when we don’t play well,” shrugged Lustig. “But we want to press high up the pitch and sometimes that asks a lot from the defenders.

“We haven’t been satisfied for a couple of games so it was really nice to get a clean sheet and good result.

“I think we always have a point to prove.

“We play for this wonderful club. Sometimes, sure, it feels like people maybe ask too much when it’s said we should beat PSG and Bayern Munich.

“But like I said before, we take the credit when it comes our way and just need to work hard every day to become better. But it was nice to show that against Zenit in the first game.”

Musonda has had a low-key start to his Celtic career, inevitable perhaps given his lack of game time this term at Chelsea, but there was a glimpse of why Rodgers pursued him so doggedly with his cameo performance.

For Lustig, the playmaker needs to be allowed time to settle and take the opportunity to play without feeling the weight of expectation upon him.

“Everyone knows now he has great talent, that’s why we brought him here,” said the right-back. “It’s perfect for him to show everyone what he’s all about. Hopefully he gets confidence now and can just feel freedom.”

And the Swede was keen to point to the example of McGregor as the reason why Celtic retain such equilibrium. The unassuming midfielder has been happy to be deployed in a multitude of positions by Rodgers but excelled in an advanced position just behind Moussa Dembele, with Lustig hinting that the new Scotland manager may wish to take note of.

“He always works so hard for the team,” enthused Lustig. “He does what the manager tells him to do whether he’s on right wing or at left-back. Callum always does a very good job and I said that last season as well.

“It’s because of guys like Cal that we are such a good group. He could be a big player for Scotland in the future. I’m not the manager but I’m sure Cal will be in the squad.

“I just felt everyone – from Dorus [de Vries] up to Moussa – worked really hard, both in defence and going forward we worked well as a team.”

The hard work hasn’t finished yet. As firstly appeared on The Evening Times.

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Donald Stephen

Donald Stephen is a freelance football writer who knows only slightly less about football than you do. A regular contributor to Football Weeks, the Set Pieces, and others. You can connect with us on - Facebook and Twitter