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Celtic are a different team since Gibraltar defeat, insists Rodgers ahead of Linfield showdown


By 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 his side's Champions League qualifier at Windsor Park.

He 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 else has done before.

Scottish Premiership. Check. Scottish Cup. Check. Scottish League Cup. Check. Three trophies without losing a single 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 in a different cycle of work."

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

"Let's be truthful, 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. One of the things we tried to do was create and regulate pressure, so whether it's against Linfield in front of 10,500 we are regulating to deal with that."

Tonight Rodgers will enter the playground of Linfield boss David Healy. He has won in David v Goliath battles before. Just ask England and Spain, but Rodgers is more focused on his side's display than what Northern Ireland's greatest goalscorer has done at Windsor in the past.

"I have great respect for David and what he has done in his football career and taking the steps into management. He has done exceptionally and will be looking to get a result of course, but for me I only worry about my own team and worry about how we work and how we play," said the former Liverpool manager.

"Being Northern Irish I know what the mentality is like, you fight for your life, you give everything even if it's against a better opponent. That is what I will expect from Linfield."

Belfast Telegraph


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