Armstrong all smiles from the San Siro to St­jar­nan

Midfielder knows Celtic are back where they be­long and aims to keep it that way

The Herald - Sport - - FOOTBALL - NEIL CAMERON

STU­ART ARMSTRONG trudged off the San Siro pitch in March with a sense of both in­jus­tice and be­long­ing.

The neg­a­tive emo­tions were trig­gered by the harsh re­al­ity that Celtic had just been knocked out of the Europa League by In­ter Mi­lan in con­tro­ver­sial cir­cum­stances. An early red card shown to Vir­gil van Dijk was de­bat­able in the least, and then an hour or so later a late goal from Fredy Guarin sealed the tie for the Ital­ians.

But it was not all doom and gloom. Armstrong scored in the first-leg, a thrilling 3-3 draw, and over both matches this young Celtic side went toe-to-toe with Euro­pean football roy­alty. It is the mem­ory of do­ing well against se­ri­ous op­po­si­tion that whets the midfielder’s ap­petite for the soon-to-start Cham­pi­ons League cam­paign. Why? Be­cause that night in Mi­lan proved to him Celtic be­longed on that stage.

In­ter Mi­lan was a good ex­pe­ri­ence. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bay­ern Mu­nich or Chelsea in the Cham­pi­ons League would be some­thing else.

“That first leg was prob­a­bly the most en­joy­able game I have ever played in,” said Armstrong. “Ev­ery­thing about it, the at­mos­phere, the noise, scor­ing was nice, too. It was also nice to get some­thing out of the game. When John Guidetti made it 3-3 in in­jury time at Celtic Park, that made it most en­joy­able and we felt we could get some­thing at the San Siro. If there are more of them to fol­low, I can’t wait.

“It’s great to play in those games, but it’s even bet­ter when you give a good ac­count of your­selves when play­ing against a team such as In­ter. To feel hard done by when you get knocked out, well that was a real vote of con­fi­dence.

“There were a few young boys in the team at the San Siro who had maybe not ex­pe­ri­enced that level of com­pe­ti­tion be­fore. It was only my sec­ond time of play­ing at that level and it was en­cour­ag­ing to see the boys han­dling it so well.”

The first qual­i­fy­ing match against FC St­jar­nan is now less than three weeks away and the Ice­landic cham­pi­ons have been mak­ing pos­i­tive noises, in­ti­mat­ing that they don’t fear Celtic and that this tie is far from a fore­gone con­clu­sion.

So this lot are not just about funny goal cel­e­bra­tions – do your­self a favour and look them up – and quite rightly fancy pulling off an up­set. Armstrong doesn’t buy that but did warn against any­one, and some sup­port­ers have been guilty of this, think­ing this will be a walkover, even if Celtic are well ca­pa­ble of coast­ing through both games.

“I would say they will be very tricky. A lot of peo­ple will be feel­ing we should get through, but it’s a tough com­pe­ti­tion and all of the teams that are in it will be feel­ing they are there on merit,” said Armstrong. “It’s go­ing to be a chal­leng­ing game. I’ve seen their cel­e­bra­tions. I’m im­pressed. The fish one is the best.

“They have their opin­ion about the game and they are en­ti­tled to it. That is ir­rel­e­vant to us, we’re fo­cused on our­selves and our prepa­ra­tion. We won’t be pay­ing too much at­ten­tion to any­thing. It is wa­ter off a duck’s back. We’d like to make a good start and a nice win or putting our­selves into a nice po­si­tion would be ad­van­ta­geous.”

The fact Armstrong isn’t a brand new boy at Celtic is tes­ta­ment to how much the club wanted to sign Gary Mackay-Steven and him­self. They could have waited un­til now be­fore bring­ing in both play­ers and saved them­selves a bit of money, but they were lured from Dundee United in Jan­uary and nei­ther have looked back.

Both scored on their de­buts, at Partick This­tle, and then went on to con­trib­ute hugely to Celtic’s ti­tle win. How­ever, that would have hap­pened even if the two had stayed at Tan­nadice for another five months, so de­spite their fine start, is this the true be­gin­ning of Armstrong and Mackay-Steven’s Celtic ca­reers?

“Yes, you could say that,” agreed Armstrong, “It’s good to make a lit­tle mark at the end of last sea­son but now is the time that you re­ally feel a Celtic player, start­ing again fresh for the new sea­son and full of ex­cite­ment.

“It’s good that it didn’t take long for us to bed in and that we didn’t look out of place. I think we can take con­fi­dence from that and it cer­tainly stands us in good stead for the sea­son. To have that pe­riod just to meet the boys and get used to things and get used to the way of life here. Now we can come back in the sum­mer and know ev­ery­one and not have to be the new guy and just fo­cus on football.”

And there is a lot of im­por­tant football for Armstrong to fo­cus on over the next weeks and months.

GLORY HUNT: Stu­art Armstrong en­joyed help­ing cap Celtic’s four in a row and now wants a proper crack at Europe

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