Eoghan O’Connell hopes he can catch the eye of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill after proving he can perform in front of a packed Aviva Stadium.
The 20-year-old made his European debut in Celtic’s 1-1 Champions League draw with Astana in Kazakhstan last Wednesday, and followed it up with a composed display against Barcelona on Saturday in Dublin.
O’Connell is hopeful of keeping his place for this week’s crucial second leg against the Kazakhs in Celtic Park, and while Kolo Toure, Mikael Lustig and Erik Sviatchenko may have something to say about that, the Cork youngster’s progress is proof that football doesn’t always follow a logical path.
Having seen his loan move to Cork City earlier this season cut short, he’s now eyeing up the Champions League rather than the Airtricity League.
“These are big games to be involved in and it’s great for me,” said O’Connell, who will turn 21 in a fortnight.
“It was special for me being home in Ireland and with my family coming out to watch. It was nice for me to be able to come back and play with Celtic so I really enjoyed it. Wednesday was my debut in Europe and hopefully I can add to that this week.
“I just want to stake a claim for a place in the team and then keep it down. That’s all I’ll be trying to do. I have to keep working hard trying to improve and impress from there. Let’s see where that takes me.”
O’Connell made his first team debut in 2014, but has added just five appearances in the meantime, as well as two games on loan with Oldham Athletic and five for hometown club Cork City.
O’Neill name-checked the defender in a media event in Tipperary last Friday, and Rodgers also appears to be a fan of the 6’2” defender.
“Just look at his performance tonight, I thought he was excellent,” Rodgers said after the Barcelona game which the La Liga outfit won 3-1.
“He came in against Leicester, a fast team, and did well, played under pressure on Wednesday night and came through it well, there’s a few areas he could improve on but he’s young, he’ll improve. He coped very well, he’s very calm. What I like about Eoghan is he knows the game, physically he can go and win headers, he can dominate, he’s calm in possession.
“There are good players in Ireland, there always have been, but he’s ready to learn, and, from what I can see so far, he’ll do well.”
O’Connell, who has one U19 cap and two U21 caps, watched the European Championships at home in Ireland, but couldn’t fail to spot the promotion of 24-year-old Shane Duffy to the heart of defence.
O’Neill last week spoke of his desire to inject some young blood into the Ireland squad, and while he may not expect a call soon, O’Connell is aware of O’Neill’s words.
“People will be watching out to see how all the young lads coming through are getting on, and hopefully all will go well,” he said.
“You need to believe in yourself, need to be hard working, and also you need a chance. Football is strange. Things can change very quickly. Sometimes a chance comes and when it does, you must take it. It’s still very early and I haven’t even played that many games for Celtic,” he added.
“I’ve only played one competitive game for them this season, and a lot of that talk is speculation. I’ll just be working as hard as I can. I won’t be too perturbed in the long-run and if it comes I’ll be delighted but it’s not something I’m too worried about.”
Wednesday night is a big enough event on O’Connell’s horizon, with progress bringing Celtic a step closer to the Champions League group stage. The Irishman believes playing such big games early in the season is a double-edged sword, but insists the team have enough quality to get the job done.
“It was hostile over there, but I thought it was a very good result as we dug in and battled well when we needed to. It was a great experience for me as well,” he said. “It can be looked on as a bad thing to be playing some of the biggest games of the season so early, but you have to do what you have to do. Being at home this week, you have to have confidence and we’ll be looking to progress.”
Celtic were out-gunned but not out-classed as they fell to a 3-1 defeat on Saturday. The Spanish giants named a strong starting XI that included superstar frontmen Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.
And while the Parkhead outfit were undone by strikes from Arda Turan and Munir El Haddadi either side of Efe Ambrose’s own goal, there was no humiliation for Brendan Rodgers’ team. They even briefly found themselves level midway through the first half when Leigh Griffiths gratefully snapped up a gift from the Barca defence.
But with International Champions Cup commitments out of the way for now, Rodgers will turn his attention to the more serious business of the Champions League and the resumption of the Scottish Premier League.
Gordon (Bailly, 45); Janko (Ralston, 63), Ambrose (McCart, 63), O’Connell (Ajer, 45), Izaguirre (Fisher, 77); Brown (Rogic, 45), Bitton (Allan, 45), McGregor (Armstrong, 45); Roberts (Ciftci, 45), Griffiths (Dembele, 45), Forrest (Christie, 63).
Masip (Suarez, 77); Roberto (Alena, 60), Mathieu (Santos, 60), Martinez (Perdomo, 77) Vidal; L. Suarez (Mujica, 60), Turan (Carbonell, 60), Camara (Borja, 77); Munir (Gubau, 77), Messi (Samper, 45), D. Suarez (Alvaro, 60)
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