Celtic will today learn their reward for a memorable Champions League qualifying campaign when the draw for the last 16 takes place in Nyon.
And having already confounded all the odds — including getting the better of Barcelona — to secure qualification, assistant manager Johan Mjallby says the club have no reason to fear anyone in the knockout phase.
“We’ve taken a lot of confidence from the performances in the Champions League so far,” he said. “The players know now they can do something. The first target was to go through from the group stage and now we’re in the last 16. It’s great for us to be in the last 16 and really have something special to look forward to.”
All that said, Celtic know today’s draw will see them end up facing one from a stellar cast of Juventus, Paris St Germain, Schalke 04, Malaga, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and even Manchester United, the juicy prospect of meeting the latter trailing the inevitable ‘Battle of Britain’ billing.
However, Mjallby cautions Celtic fans should be careful what they wish for.
“I can see the argument that some supporters want the glamour tie and Man U, but you have to remember Man U are leading the Premier League and doing really, really well at the moment,” he pointed out.
Whatever the outcome of today’s draw, there’s more than just progress in the Champions League at stake for Celtic, with Mjallby expressing the hope the team’s headline-grabbing European campaign will help the club retain their best players.
Prolific striker Gary Hooper, forward Georgios Samaras and midfielder Victor Wanyama are among the players who have been linked with moves away from Parkhead in next month’s transfer window, following strong showings as Neil Lennon’s side advanced to the knockout stages of Europe’s elite competition.
“This should be a great incentive for them to stay here at Celtic and take us forward,” Mjallby said.
“You never know where it’s going to take us. If we hadn’t gone through and done as well as we have I think maybe some of the players who have done exceptionally well for us would maybe be interested to have another challenge.”
Hooper, in particular, has impressed, with potential last-16 opponents Juventus just the latest club to be linked with the former Grays Athletic and Scunthorpe striker, who has netted 13 times this season.
Mjallby appreciates why Hooper is attracting admirers, but hopes Celtic can fend off the suitors throughout January.
“I think there are discussions now [at Celtic] with Gary, his agent and the club,” he said. “Fingers crossed from my point of view something’s going to happen.
“He’s shown that he can do it at the highest level, so I can understand where the interest is coming from. It’s down to Gary and what his targets are and what he’s looking for. The grass is not always greener on the other side.”
Meanwhile, Barcelona midfielder Alex Song has said he would welcome a return to Arsenal if the clubs are drawn together. Song swapped the Emirates Stadium for the Nou Camp when he joined the Arsenal exodus during the summer and expects only one outcome if they meet for a place in the quarter-finals.
“Of course I would like to play against Arsenal,” he said. “For me to go back there, where I had seven magnificent years, would be something very special.”
Manchester United are the second Premier League side to make it through to the knockout stages after defending champions Chelsea and Manchester City failed to progress.
Real Madrid may be trailing La Liga leaders Barcelona by 13 points but they are still the team Alex Ferguson will want to avoid most, knowing only Champions League glory can redeem Real’s season.
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