MIKAEL Lustig put club before country three nights ago and intends to do the same on Wednesday when Elfsborg come to Glasgow, even if the act damages the Celtic defender's popularity with the rest of Sweden.
Celtic Park is not the only place which hungers for Champions League membership. It is now 13 years since a Swedish side – Helsingborgs – graced Europe's elite by reaching the group stage and the Allsvenskan is irked by the fact that its neighbours in Norway and Denmark have enjoyed that privilege while the Swedes have their noses pressed against the window.
Lustig helped Celtic to end Helsingborgs' dream a year ago in the play-off and if the man from Umea in northern Sweden was forgiven by his compatriots a few months later when he scored in their remarkable 4-4 World Cup qualifying draw with Germany, Lustig knows that denying Elfsborg would heighten the notion that he is a serial killer of Swedish football dreams. Although Lustig was proud of Malmo's 7-0 Europa League thrashing of Hibernian last Thursday, he was not at Easter Road to cheer on his compatriots. Instead, the 26-year-old opted to go to Perth to watch his old team, Rosenborg, being knocked out by St Johnstone. Lustig spent three years at the Norwegian side before Neil Lennon recruited him in January 2012.
Loading article content
"When I was with Rosenborg, we played two Swedish teams and now twice with Celtic, so something keeps pulling me back," smiles the right-back. "Every time, we've gone through, so that's good. It's special for me to play Swedish teams. To go back and play against players you know is good, but I would rather play other teams than knock a Swedish team out."
Malmo's coach, Rikard Norling, insisted after his side's humiliation of Hibernian that Swedish and Scottish football are on a par, with Celtic capable of greater things than any club in either country. However, the Easter Road demolition ought to serve as a warning to Celtic if they feel progress is guaranteed simply because Lennon's team eliminated Helsingborgs.
"Both Elfsborg and Malmo play football on the deck," said Lustig. "The top five teams in the Allenskvan would probably be top teams here as well, but I think at Celtic we have a better squad than most of the Swedish teams."
Lustig has two connections to Elfsborg, whose title triumph last season was a source of deep civic pride for the small city of Boras – whose 66,000 population could almost squeeze into Celtic Park – in the west of Sweden. Manager Jorgen Lennartsson was Lustig's coach for Sweden's under-21 side, while club icon Anders Svensson is a colleague in the national team.
Svensson once played for Gordon Strachan at Southampton and is best known for his stunning free-kick against Argentina in the 2002 World Cup. At 37, the midfielder is enjoying an Indian summer with the club he rejoined on his return from England and should win his 142nd cap for Sweden next month when he and Lustig face Norway.
"I know Anders really well," said Lustig. "I have played with him in the national team for three years. He is going to break the record (143 held by goalkeeper Thomas Ravelli) for most national games for Sweden, so he is a big player. I spoke to him last week. Elfsborg think the games against Celtic will be good, but they were not happy with the draw.
"They thought Celtic and Basel were the two toughest teams. So it's big for them to play at Celtic Park. Elfsborg have an artificial pitch. Their record there is unbelievable, but they struggle away so hopefully we can get a result on Wednesday. "
Lennartsson was assistant manager at Helsingborgs when they reached the group stage of the Champions League stage in 2000-01. "Jorgen was my coach for a couple of years with the Sweden under-21s and is a really good coach," declares Lustig. "He was in Norway at Stabaek and I faced him there with Rosenborg. He's crazy about football. He watches 20 games a week. He does not like to take risks, so I think they will sit back a bit at Celtic Park."
Lustig knows only too well that Scandinavian sides profit from being in mid-season right now, while Scottish football is just getting back to work.
"We struggled a little at home to HJK Helsinki last year and it was the same at Helsingborgs," admitted the defender. "Players from Scandinavian leagues are peaking now. St Johnstone did well to knock Rosenborg out, but I think Rosenborg were the better team. However, it was good to go to Perth and see some old faces from my time in Norway."
While Celtic have been earning plaudits – and hard cash – for spotting Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper and then selling them to England for a £14 million profit, Lennon believes the recruitment of Lustig for nothing was superb business.
"Mikael is a fantastic player," said the Celtic manager."Sevilla enquired about him last year. He's very consistent, excellent in the air, good on the ball, gets forward well. He has been a brilliant acquisition and is very under-rated."
Lennon will be happy for Lustig to earn greater exposure by conjuring up another opening goal on Wednesday, as he did in the first leg with Cliftonville. The dark-haired Swede is Celtic's Nordic noir specialist hoping to repeat last season's Champions League drama.