Brendan Rodgers is well used to the great Celtic paradox.
Supporters headed to Friday’s canter at Hamilton via a badly maintained lane, dodging beer cans and dog mess. Upon reaching the SuperSeal Stadium, the scene was of two permanent stands, an artificial pitch and the prospect of fierce clearances ending up in a supermarket car park. It seems faintly laughable to label such a fixture as preparation for the visit of Neymar and Paris Saint‑Germain.
It is understandable that Rodgers does not belittle the Scottish football landscape. More typical settings greet Celtic at Ibrox, Pittodrie, Tynecastle and Easter Road. While Celtic were pulling Hamilton apart 4-1, PSG were doing likewise at Metz, winning 5-1.
On Friday, Celtic’s manager pointed towards “the beauty of being up here” in respect of contrasting backdrops. He railed against the suggestion of Hamilton, or anywhere similar, being a useless precursor to Europe. “For me, it is irrelevant [where we are]. My concentration is on the pitch, I focus on the field. Hamilton was a big game for us.” And now? “We are now going to face one of the best teams on the planet.”
Whatever his views are regarding the necessity for Celtic to enjoy the Champions League to offset the domestic scene, he keeps them to himself. This is the message given to players: that Celtic’s unbeaten run in Scotland, stretching back to May 2016, demonstrates intensity.
Scott Sinclair says: “To go from Hamilton to PSG is a massive jump but everyone in the squad has that mentality that all the games are just as important, no matter whether league, Champions League or League Cup. No matter what game you go into, you have to say it is just as important.”
Celtic’s style is untypical of other Scottish sides, who look to profit from getting the ball forward quickly and feeding off scraps. In Sinclair, James Forrest, Patrick Roberts and Stuart Armstrong, Rodgers has creative forces who operate in more nuanced and varying ways. Although Leigh Griffiths is almost certain to start in attack on Tuesday, the flashes shown by the PSG loanee Odsonne Édouard on Friday suggest yet another successful foray into the transfer market.
Of all those keen to impress in the Champions League – and display improvement from the same platform a year ago – Sinclair has added motivation. If history suggests an English player has little chance of international recognition when performing in Glasgow, his story is untypical. He was an England representative from under-17 to under-21 level, for starters. Does he look at Gareth Southgate’s squads now and wonder why he doesn’t get a look-in? “Yes, that’s always the case. All players can do that.”
The 28-year-old’s talent was sufficient for Manchester City to pay a considerable sum for him in 2012. Celtic have reinvigorated his career, to the point where his form has never been better. When England’s lack of depth in the left side of attack is factored in, Sinclair should have a World Cup charge in mind.
“Well that’s the question,” he says to the suggestion of the Champions League enhancing his international appeal. “All I can do is concentrate on what I’m doing, playing as well as I can at Celtic. Whatever happens outside, happens. I just need to do everything in my control, playing well.
“This is the stage. All I can do is as well as I can in the Champions League then just wait and see what happens. I’m looking forward to it just as much as everyone else. It is a great platform for all of us to show what we are about, to step up to the plate.
“We are a much stronger group now. We have learned from the mistakes of last year going into this group stage. We will go into every game thinking we are not just here to make up the numbers. We are here to compete and make sure we give all the teams a good game.”
Neymar has previous in a Celtic context, meaning he is destined to be cast as the pantomime villain regardless of events. He has encountered previous scraps with two of Celtic’s starters, Scott Brown and Mikael Lustig. Sinclair stops short of confirming he admires the former Barcelona man and rightly cites an intense Celtic Park atmosphere as a boost to the hosts rather than cause for Parisian panic. “I’m sure it won’t faze him at all but it will make us raise our game,” he says. “Neymar is world class. His goalscoring speaks for itself. I’m sure all the boys are looking forward to playing against him; and making sure we stop him.”
It is quite the challenge, a world away from Hamilton.
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