‘Leicester showed it can be done’: Rodgers believes Clarke has a shot
Parkhead manager praises his Killie counterpart and admits table-topping underdogs could well lift the title at the end of the season
IN some ways, it could be described as a meeting of minds.
Celtic host table-toppers Kilmarnock this afternoon with Brendan Rodgers and Steve Clarke both cut from a similar cloth; both inherited players whom they improved, both like getting their boots muddy on the training ground and both have a similar philosophy when it comes to how to play.
In what has been a blanket of domestic dominance for Rodgers, Kilmarnock have been one of the few hiccups for the Celtic manager; in the four meetings since Clarke took the helm at Rugby Park, Celtic are yet to walk away with all three points, with two draws and two defeats.
“Steve has done great and he’s really galvanised the club and the team,” said Rodgers. “The biggest credit you can give Steve and his team is that it’s not a surprise.
“If you’ve watched them over the last year they’ve been consistently very, very good at getting results. Where they are now, okay they have played a couple more games than other teams but they have got the results and they have got the points.
“They are a very, very difficult team to play against. They defend very deep. They are tight and we’ll organised and compact. You need to be very patient when you are playing against them and you need to be able to move the ball quickly.
“Steve and I are both what you would call coaching managers. We like to coach. We like to be on the grass – or the Astro – with the players and feel them close and help them develop. That’s our natural habitat.
“My mission when I first came in here was to try and inspire the players to be the best they can possibly be.
“And then get the supporters excited in terms of how we play. From that we’ve been able to win seven trophies but we’ve established a culture at this club that has given us a great base to develop what I would call the long game – to sustain our success over a long period of time.
“We’ve got a base in terms of standards and quality and we’ve got football development in place to let people maximise their talent.”
Kilmarnock’s achievements over the calendar year are perhaps all the more impressive given their best player last term, Youssouf Mulumbu, moved to Celtic on the final day of the transfer window.
Whether or not they are still there or thereabouts at the end of the season remains to be seen. In recent seasons there have been suggestions of a more competitive league but in fairness to Celtic, whenever questions have been asked they have been more than able to provide the answers.
This afternoon’s game gives Rodgers’ side the opportunity to move to the summit of the table – they have been there just twice this term – but the Celtic manager feels that there has been a competitiveness about the league.
“I’ve really enjoyed it in a different way to other seasons,” said Rodgers. “You want it to be competitive but you can only ever control yourselves. That’s what we try and do but it’s great when there’s competition because that allows you to improve.
“If you look across the league, Kilmarnock are up there on merit, Rangers have improved, Aberdeen will always be strong and they have a couple of games in hand. Hearts and Hibs are two big clubs and maybe results have fallen away a bit but they’ve still got good squads with good managers.
“It’s a good league and a great one to be involved in.”
And while comparisons between Leicester’s title triumph in England a couple of seasons ago ignore the significant financial investment down south, Rodgers believes that the Foxes’ league-winning season has opened the door to teams believing anything can be done.
“Well why not?,” said the Celtic manager when questioned on whether Kilmarnock can replicate Leicester’s feat. “I think that’s what they will think themselves if they can continue with that kind of consistency. I think when there are 10 games to go you look closer at it because then there’s a different pressure and everything else that comes into play which is totally different and new if you have not been in that situation before. But you can’t argue with what Kilmarnock have done over a sustained period, which has been absolutely brilliant.
“Leicester showed, at 5000-1 it can be done. And what Leicester did was make the impossible is possible. If you have got good players and what they have at Kilmarnock is experienced players and a mix of young players.”
Mikael Lustig is expected to be back in Celtic’s squad for today after a knock in the Betfred Cup final while Leigh Griffiths should be fit to play too. The striker missed training at Lennoxtown yesterday afternoon with “an issue” but is expected to be in the squad.
Kristoffer Ajer, who underwent surgery last month on a fractured eye socket, is expected to resume training with the first-team squad on Monday morning although it will be some weeks before he is physically fit to play.