Saturday 22 October 2016

Rodgers backs stronger Celtic side to handle Hapoel

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers says his side are ready for tonight’s Champions League clash with Hapoel Be’er Sheva. Photo: PA
Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers says his side are ready for tonight’s Champions League clash with Hapoel Be’er Sheva. Photo: PA

Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers believes his men will stand firm under the pressure of tonight's Champions League clash with Hapoel Be'er Sheva.

With a potential £20million bounty at stake for reaching the group stages, the Hoops boss is well aware of the importance of the play-off double header with the Israeli champions.

It is three years since the Scottish champions took their place among the biggest names in Europe.

Under former boss Ronny Deila last term, their entry ticket was snatched away by a disastrous defeat in their final qualifier with Malmo, while the Norwegian's first attempt at qualification the year before also ended in frustration despite having two goes at it.

But Rodgers is confident the team he is now in charge of will not wilt in the same manner this time round.

He said: "The last couple of seasons have gone by and the players learn from those experiences.

"But it's also a new team with new ideas - a new identity - and we've shown over this early part of the season an ability to deal with pressure.

"We've talked about that. This is a team that went to Hearts on the back of a really difficult qualifier in midweek but came through it.

"There are various checkpoints in games where you are asked questions under pressure and so far I've been really pleased with how the players have coped.

"This will be the same. We're very calm but we understand that over the course of the two games there will be moments where we have to cope with it.

"But looking at how the boys have been working, I see no reason why we can't. We're playing the champions of another country but we're ready to accept the challenge. Hopefully the players have positive experiences they can take in having learned from the past."

Rodgers - who vowed to lead the club back to Europe's biggest stage when he was appointed earlier this summer - knows what it is like to operate under strain.

A successful promotion bid with Swansea and a near miss at the Premier League title during his Liverpool stint came with their own unique tensions.

But ahead of the biggest test of his Celtic reign so far, he looked relaxed. "You don't have to build these games up," said the Northern Irishman. "Every game you play here as the manager there is an expectancy to win and do well. I don't feel any more or less pressure.

"The demand over these two legs is to win and to qualify. That's what we aim to do.

"But I'm sat very comfortable and satisfied with how our preparation has gone."

Celtic will aim to take a commanding lead to Be'er Sheva for next week's return in the southern deserts of Israel but Rodgers insists there will still be work to do regardless of tonight's outcome.

"The ideal scenario is that we don't concede a goal and we win the game," he said. "We're playing at home and we love playing here. I know that players are excited about playing at home.

"We want to win the game but the team is performing very well, the mentality is good and we're in a good place at the moment."

Rodgers has already picked the brains of former Parkhead boss Neil Lennon on how to approach the ties.

Lennon masterminded the club's famous 2012 victory over Barcelona and the current occupier of the job hopes to bring that kind of thrill back to Glasgow's east end.

He said: "Neil and I had a nice meal and many things came up in the conversation. He has been here at the club and understands the importance of Champions League football."

Erik Sviatchenko will return to Rodgers' squad after recovering from a groin injury.

Nir Bitton is also back after ankle trouble but neither Dedryck Boyata nor Patrick Roberts are expected to feature despite stepping up their recovery from hamstring problems.

Striker Leigh Griffiths, midfielder Stefan Johansen and defender Efe Ambrose are free to play after missing the Betfred Cup romp over Motherwell through suspension. Jozo Simunovic (knee) remains out.

Celtic v Hapoel Be'er Sheva (Live BT Sport 2, KO 7.45)

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