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Lustig: Celtic must aim high in Europe next season

WHEN setting the standards to which you aspire ahead of a new season of European competition, it is best to aim high.

Watching brief: Ronny Deila took charge of his first training session as Celtic manager yesterday and will lead his side out in the second qualifying round of the Champions League, against Icelandic club KR Reykjavik, next month. Picture: SNS
Watching brief: Ronny Deila took charge of his first training session as Celtic manager yesterday and will lead his side out in the second qualifying round of the Champions League, against Icelandic club KR Reykjavik, next month. Picture: SNS

Mikael Lustig, the Swedish right-back, certainly knows the direction in which he is looking as he targets a campaign to remember at Celtic: to the Spanish capital of Madrid and the Atletico side which won the Primera Liga before contesting the Champions League final last season.

Diego Simeone's team adopted a physical, direct style in achieving such success - an approach somewhat different to the more possession-based philosophy likely to be employed by Celtic manager, Ronny Deila - but Lustig still sees much in their achievements to give the Scottish champions reason to dream.

Atletico, while operating with a budget far greater than anything available in Scottish football, overcame Chelsea in Europe and Barcelona and city rivals Real in domestic competition. In their own way, they proved that money does not necessarily guarantee success.

Atletico stuck to a particular way of playing, used the same players most weeks and formed a unit which grew stronger as the months rolled by. Lustig regards them as trailblazers, of a sort, as he endeavours to take Celtic into the Champions League group stage for the third successive season and make up for exiting at that point of the competition last term.

"When we reached the last 16 a couple of seasons ago, though, that showed you how good things can be," said Lustig, who is aiming to regain full fitness after missing much of last term in the wake of a hip operation.

"You don't need massive amounts of money to reach that goal. With a little more luck and a little more skill, we could have done a lot better than we did last season as well. You have to be focused for 90 minutes at that level and you have got to score when you have opportunities. We didn't do that.

"Atletico Madrid have more money than us, but they don't have that much when you compare it to Chelsea, Manchester City and the biggest clubs. They won the Spanish League and they reached the Champions League final. [Borussia] Dortmund reached the final the year before as well. I still think we are going to see teams like these do well in the Champions League.

"I don't think we will see the same Atletico next season, but the things they have done show the smaller clubs what can happen if you find the right way to play."

Lustig, who reported back yesterday morning for pre-season training and a first session since Deila's appointment, is content with the draw which paired his side with KR Reykjavik in the second qualifying round of the Champions League.

However, he has offered a salutary warning to his team-mates ahead of the first leg - which has still to be confirmed for Murrayfield or Iceland - on July 15 or 16. The Swede came up against Icelandic opposition in Breidablik at this stage of the competition while he was on the books of Norwegian side Rosenborg three years ago and lost the away leg 2-0 on a difficult surface.

Rosenborg had already won the first game between the sides 5-0 and progressed on aggregate, but the 27-year-old defender knows just how uncomfortable KR Reykjavik could make it for Celtic next month.

"I know the Icelandic players' mentality and how the people are. They never give up and are really proud of themselves," he said. "They are also halfway through their season. We experienced that when we played Helsingborgs and Elfsborg, but so far we have managed to go through against sides like that and those experiences can help us."

Lustig agreed a new three-year contract with Celtic at the end of last month and insists he was never tempted by the idea of trying his luck at a different level of football. His erstwhile manager, Neil Lennon, left Celtic without a permanent job to go to, but with an ambition to try his luck in England. Lustig has also watched the likes of Gary Hooper move to Norwich City, relegated from the Barclays Premier League last term, and Victor Wanyama jump at a move to Southampton.

He would never criticise their choices, but insists he has no intention of walking away from a club which can offer him Champions League football on a regular basis.

"If you are one of the best players in the world, you can maybe pick and choose," said Lustig. "However, I feel that I would go to a smaller club if I was to make a change.

"I can only speak for myself. Money is important for me, but it is not that important. Maybe if I was on my own, without a family, I would maybe have a little more ice in my blood and wait a couple of months to see what happens.

However, from the first day we started talking about a contract extension, staying was the only thing I was thinking about."

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