‘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

Evening Times - - SPORT - BY AL­I­SON McCON­NELL

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.

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