Saturday 24 February 2018

Rodgers unfazed by Bhoys' task in Windsor cauldron

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers. Photo: Donall Farmer/PA Wire
Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers. Photo: Donall Farmer/PA Wire

Steven Beacom

Brendan Rodgers cut a relaxed figure on his return to Northern Ireland.

Happy in himself and confident in his team, the Celtic manager felt at ease answering questions about matters on and off the field ahead of tonight's Champions League qualifier at Windsor Park.

Rodgers is disappointed that officially there will be no Celtic supporters in the stadium, but excited to be taking on Linfield in his home country in a game that he hopes will start the Bhoys on another memorable journey to the group stages of Europe's elite competition.

One year ago he was digesting a staggering 1-0 defeat in Gibraltar against Lincoln Red Imps.

It's been just about the only low in his Celtic managerial career having guided the Hoops beyond the Champions League qualifiers - seeing off the Red Imps in the process - and then proceeding to dominate Scottish football for a season like nobody has done before.

Scottish Premiership. Check. Scottish Cup. Check. Scottish League Cup. Check. Three trophies without losing a game.

Little wonder the Celtic supporters hail him as the conquering hero. This season he is determined to achieve more success at home and abroad - and that means overcoming Linfield in the first qualifying round tie.

Rodgers admits with this being Celtic's first competitive game of the season, they are unlikely to be at their blistering best but, given how he has developed big-name players like Moussa Dembele and improved the likes of Scott Sinclair and Scott Brown, as well as giving the squad a mental edge, he isn't expecting a Gibraltar-type shock either.

"The game in Gibraltar was interesting. It was my first chance to see the team in a competitive fixture," recalled Rodgers, during his media briefing at the team's Culloden hotel base.

"The conditions were tough and difficult - but there was also a vulnerability there in the team. You sensed that.

"It was my job as a coach to make sure that game was never going to be a symbol of our future.

"It was an opportunity for me to look at it and go 'OK - there's an issue here'. The club hadn't qualified for the Champions League for a couple of seasons. So it was a question of how I could help the players deal with this pressure, the mental side of the game.

"I knew that tactically and technically, we would get better as we went on. Now, 12 months on, I think we would all agree it is a different team with a different mentality."

And that mentality means dealing with an intimidating atmosphere, which is likely to be the case at Windsor with 10,000-odd Linfield fans desperate for a famous victory.

"We have gone into some tough places as a team and I think what we have developed is a mentality and a one-ness that pulls you together," said Rodgers.

"If you go to Ibrox, in front of 50-odd thousand, with 40-odd thousand opponents against you, you have to be ready."

Linfield v Celtic

Live, eir Sport 2, 5.0pm

Irish Independent

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