Football/Soccer

We want to be playing European football after Christmas: Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers will be in Belfast on Saturday night for a 'Meet & Greet' and Q&A evening at The Devenish, starting at 7.30pm, in association with NI Hospice. Ticket prices range between £20-£50.

BRENDAN Rodgers says there's no reason why Celtic can't be competitive in this season's Champions League group stages and be playing European football after Christmas.

Speaking exclusively to The Irish News ahead of Saturday night's ‘An Evening with Brendan Rodgers,' in association with the NI Hospice, at The Devenish in west Belfast, the Co Antrim man is unfazed by this season's Champions League mission.

The Scottish Premier League champions face Paris Saint Germain, Bayern Munich and Anderlecht in Group B.

Last season, the Hoops drew with Man City home and away and despite suffering a 7-0 defeat to Barcelona at Camp Nou, Rodgers' men chiselled out a gusty 3-3 draw with the Catalan giants in the return game at Celtic Park.

However, they finished bottom of their group and were edged out of Europa League contention by Borussia Monchengladbach.

“We respect the three teams in the group will be vying to win the Champions League,” Rodgers said. “Their financial footing in the game puts them in a different stratosphere but that doesn't mean you can't be competitive and fight.”

Celtic host PSG in their Champions League group opener on Tuesday September 12 before travelling to face Belgian outfit Anderlecht 15 days' later.

“Can we take the next step this year? We've qualified for the Champions League but can we be in European competition after Christmas? If we can do that, that would be a brilliant achievement,” said Rodgers, who guided the Scottish club to the treble in his first season in charge.

The Carnlough native signed a four-year deal with Celtic in April and if he fulfils that contract he could make more history with the Scottish giants.

Celtic fans, who have taken the affable Irishman to their hearts since his arrival, have already been chanting the prospect of their manager achieving 10-in-a-row at Parkhead.

Celtic and Rangers teams of the past managed nine consecutive titles but neither club has reached double digits.

“I wouldn't put a time on it,” Rodgers said about how long he will stay in Glasgow.

“It could be more than that [four years], it could be less.

“Of course, for the supporters it's [10-in-a-row] obviously a big incentive and a big objective. But from a management perspective I only look to this season and more importantly the next game.

“When I signed for Celtic, I signed for a year so we had the opportunity to look at each other and commit to that period of time.

“But, very clearly, we worked very well together. I've a good relationship with the board, particularly with Dermot [Desmond] and Peter [Lawwell] and it's very much synchronised and how we get the best for Celtic.

“I've committed for four years but in football you just never know. The most important thing is to be happy and I couldn't be happier and I feel I've still a lot of work to do at Celtic.

“My ambition is purely for Celtic and Celtic only. There is still a lot for us to achieve.

“I've still got a lot of competitive energy to give to Celtic; I still think there are a lot of improvements to make on and off the field. That's my only focus.

“In my footballing life, I couldn't be in a better place. I'm loving every minute of it.”

He added: “My job is to sustain excellence. For us, it's about sustaining it over the next two, three, four years. Teams lose games - that's football.

“But what we look to do every day is start from scratch. Every day is a new day so you have to fight, you have to work; you have to earn the right to play to be the best you can be. If that happens you retain the hunger to keep winning.”

Rodgers has travelled a remarkable road since quitting playing football at just aged 20.

After deciding from a young age that he wanted to coach, Rodgers spent time with Spanish La Liga clubs Barcelona, Sevilla, Real Betis and Valencia and his football education took him to Holland for a time.

During his time with Reading's Youth Academy, Jose Mourinho recruited the former Northern Ireland underage player in 2004 for a position on his backroom team at Chelsea.

He's had managerial spells at Watford, Reading and Swansea.

It was his brilliant work at Swansea that enabled him to land the Liverpool job where he came desperately close to landing the Anfield club the league title in 2014.

Unbeaten domestically last season, Celtic won 43 games, scored 134 goals and won three trophies.

But it's the style of play that has made him a firm favourite with Celtic fans.

“Football is all about preference,” Rodgers said.

“I don't think there is a right or a wrong way to play the game. Of course at the highest level it's a high-level technical and tactical game so I've always tried to coach teams that way.

“That's only a preference of mine – I've nothing against a team that wants to go direct.

“That's the preference of the coach or a manager to do that, and that's okay…

“For me, winning is important but there's a way to win, a style in which we want to win. My preference is always to win by playing an aggressive attacking game.”

Under Rodgers, players such as Scott Brown, Tom Rogic, Stuart Armstrong and James Forrest have found a new lease of life.

“It's getting to people's strengths,” the Celtic manager said.

“I think that's what's important. Lots of coaching can always be about improving weaknesses but, for me, it's always about trying to find the strengths of players are, especially older players and giving them the confidence to get back to where they're strengths are and develop those strengths.”

With the international break kicking in, Rodgers was only too happy to come over to Belfast this weekend to meet Celtic supporters at The Devenish in a special Questions & Answers evening.

“It's something I've been invited to and I'm only too happy to go back to Belfast,” he said.

“The seasons are very long, there's a lot of work in them and the time we have as managers and coaches is very limited, but I'm fully aware of the support base in Ireland for Celtic and I had a couple of days spare to do it and to open up a wee bit about everything Celtic and have the door open to Celtic supporters. So I was happy to do that.

“I'm sure I'll be asked relevant questions of my time at Celtic and I'll get a chance to meet supporters so it should be a nice evening.”

Some tickets are still available on-line and at The Devenish reception Tel: 028-90301154 for Saturday's event, doors opening at 7.30pm, which is expected to sell-out.

Prices range from £20-£50. For more information log on to ticketweb.ie

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