Scott Brown did his best to take his frustration out on Brazil. Celtic have been forced to stew for the best part of a fortnight since their Co-operative Insurance Cup final defeat by Rangers, that agonising wait heightening their determination to ensure they make amends in what remains of this unpredictable, combustible season.
Not for them an instant chance at redemption. The final whistle at Hampden a week past Sunday also signalled the start of the international break, when many of the squad, including Brown, headed off to join up with their national teams.
The half-dozen or so left at Lennoxtown moped around, put in a bit of training and then travelled to Spain for a friendly against Athletic Bilbao. Neil Lennon was sent to the stand in that match, showing how pent up he was following the cup final disappointment, but for the majority of the Celtic squad the first opportunity to take out their frustration at letting the first trophy of the season slip from their grasps presents itself today.
Talk is cheap, of course, but if yesterday’s pre-match media briefing is anything to go by, Inverness Caledonian Thistle better brace themselves for a Celtic onslaught in the Highlands this lunchtime.
“After the disappointment of the cup final you want to play the next game on the Monday if you could,” said Mjallby. “You want to get straight back into action. It’s been hard this time as so many players have been away so we’ve not been able to train with the full team or talk about things in a lot of detail. But we’re putting the cup final to bed now. It was two weeks ago and it’s a fresh challenge now, starting with Inverness on Saturday.”
Brown was even less equivocal, virtually promising that Celtic will not end the season empty-handed. They lead the Clydesdale Bank Premier League from Rangers by two points, although they have played a game more than their rivals, and are firm favourites to lift the Scottish Cup. Celtic have not won silverware since the 2009 League Cup and Brown is anxious to make amends. “We saw Rangers lifting a trophy and nobody wants to see that,” said the captain. “Now it’s our turn, hopefully.
“I think we are strong enough mentally and physically to respond [to the cup final defeat]. There are always going to be question marks if we don’t win something. But believe me – we will win something.”
Celtic, who will give a late fitness test to Biram Kayal, have not always had it easy in Inverness. The Scottish Cup defeat of 2003 remains a sore point for Lennon and Mjallby, while recent matches between the sides have also been close.
It has reached a point of the season, reckons Brown, where it is results rather than performances that matter most. “I think if we believe we can just go up there and play nice football and disrespect Inverness, then we’ll be in for a shock.
“It’s not about playing pretty football. It’s about grinding out a result. Inverness are good defensively and they’ve always been like that. They look to set-plays to score goals. We’re going to have to break them down and it’s going to be hard. But it’s just going to have to be done. It’s not really going to be a football game. It’s going to be about a battle and who wants to win the battle.”
Good news for Celtic over the past fortnight came when Shaun Maloney and Freddie Ljungberg both declared themselves fit and healthy. The Swede has not made the impact expected of him when he signed at the start of the year, but Mjallby believes his countryman still has a part to play.
“We’ve been a bit unfortunate that it’s been a bit stop-start and he’s picked up some niggling injuries. When he’s been fit and is in training, he’s shown he’s got class. He’s got something extra to the other players and that could be important in the run-in. It’s good to have every player fit and hungry and raring to go and Freddie should be hungry now to show how good he is.”
Maloney’s return to fitness has also been welcomed. “It is brilliant to have him back,” added Mjallby. “He was, arguably, one of our better players before he broke down. The last couple of seasons have been disappointing that he has spent more time on the sidelines than on the pitch. He is like another new player, who we can hopefully use as much as possible in the run-in.”
The Celtic assistant manager denied suggestions some of Maloney’s problems were in his head, but did offer a telling insight into the midfielder’s thinking. “Shaun maybe wants to feel perfect before he goes out. He really wants to feel injury-free. I think he understands now that he has turned 28 that when you are around that age that you are very seldom going to feel 100% when you go out on the pitch to train or play.”