Tuesday 25 July 2017

Rodgers happy with strides forward but encourages Hoops to go further

Brendan Rodgers is on course to win the treble in his first season as Celtic boss
Brendan Rodgers is on course to win the treble in his first season as Celtic boss

Colin Young

Brendan Rodgers already knows what the treble feels like. Like all three Scottish Cup semi-final managers, the Celtic boss posed for pictures with the famous trophy this week. History beckons for Rodgers if he can lift it for real next month.

His Celtic team face Rangers in the Old Firm derby semi at Hampden Park today. Win, and the league and cups treble is still on. Lose, and he will have 'failed' where Neil Lennon and Ronny Delia 'failed' before him. Even if the Celtic of 2017 can maintain their unbeaten 'Invincibles' run, it will feel like an opportunity lost.

Speaking at their stunning training ground at the foot of the Campsie Fells, half an hour from Parkhead, Rodgers reiterated that total dominance was his aim when he took over in June. Nothing has changed.

Rodgers said: "We have made, I believe, since I first walked in on June 19, tangible progress in terms of the profile of the club, the level of our game, winning trophies, performance and filling the stadium. It is a decent measure that it has been ok, but we can always push to the next level.

"There is lots of room for improvement, but if I look at the landmarks over the course of the season, whatever the result this weekend, we have had a brilliant season.

"To be newly arrived at the club, qualify for the Champions League, which as Kenny Dalglish said is like winning a trophy in itself, beat a very good Aberdeen side to win the League Cup and then win the league, and have the distance and points margin we have, to be unbeaten and beat a Lisbon Lions' record, is phenomenal.

"We have a chance to make it an absolutely historic season, but before a ball is kicked this weekend, I have to say the players have been brilliant and it has been a nice step forward in our first season together."

Today will be Rodgers' first encounter with new Rangers boss, Pedro Caixinha, the third manager he has faced from the Ibrox club following earlier meetings with Mark Warburton and Graeme Murty.

The pair met for the first time at the Glasgow Cup Final this week, where Celtic won the dress rehearsal 2-1. Once a traditional city-wide competition, with an inevitable Old Firm final, it is now contested by youth teams and had to be played behind closed doors at Firhill. It was Celtic's fourth successive Glasgow Cup triumph and, technically, the club's fourth trophy of the season.

Last season, Rangers, then of the championship, defeated Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final. The reborn Blue side of the city should have won the first meeting in two years in 90 minutes, but eventually went through on penalties.

Rodgers was in Belfast then, unaware of the path his career would take two months later when he was offered the Celtic post. Now firmly in charge at Celtic Park, he wants to increase the gap between the two Glasgow giants.

He said: "It is very clear to me what I was doing that day, because I was at the christening of my young nephew, Malachy, and I was surrounded by lots of players in the chapel on their phones, knowing my mother would have killed them if she'd been alive.

"So I was obviously up to speed with the score and then I watched the game later and I don't think there is an argument about who the better team was and who deserved to go through.

"I never thought about the job at all then. I was enjoying the rest and trying to map out maybe what the next one would be, but it was only when I received the call from Peter Lawwell, the chief executive, that I gave it some thought.

'When I came in, the feeling was that Hampden was not a good place for Celtic, but I said you better make it a good place because if we want to win trophies, that is where it is going to be. We have played there twice and been outstanding.

"It is not like we are going back there for the first time in a year and there will be all the memories. It is a different manager, different team, different mentality, so we are ready as we have been since the first day of the season. They are brilliant games, with the excitement and adrenaline for players, coaching staff, supporters, there is certainly not a bigger derby in the world."

Celtic are chasing history, but history is on Rangers' side. The Hoops have not won a Scottish Cup last-four meeting since 1925. Although Rodgers had an answer for that, too. The two teams have played just four times in that 92 years, he said. "It's not even worth talking about.'"

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