ZENIT ST PETERSBURG defender Miha Mevlja reckons facing up to Harry Kane at Wembley proves he can handle anything Celtic throw at him in their Europa League showdown this week.
The Russians arrive in Glasgow tomorrow directly from their Turkish training camp in Antayla with Roberto Mancini’s side strong favourites with bookmakers to progress to the last 16.
If Celtic want to take a first-leg advantage to St Petersburg, they will have to find a way past the Zenit defence, which is marshalled by 27-year-old Mevlja.
The Slovenian played against Scotland in the World Cup qualifying campaign and also had to come up against England in the same group. He was paired with former West Brom and Marseille veteran central defender Bostjan Cesar and came within seconds of keeping Spurs sensation Kane quiet, until he netted in the fourth minute of injury time to secure England’s qualification.
And Mevlja believes he can put his experience against Kane to good use when he faces the likes of Moussa Dembele on Thursday.
He said: “I had to cope with Kane, which was tough. England are a serious team. But those kinds of experiences will help me with Zenit playing in the Champions League or Europa League, like this match with Celtic.
“I played well that night and it was a pity we only lost the match 1-0 when Kane scored late on. I think I managed Kane pretty well so it makes me confident going up against anyone now for Zenit.
“We had a tough group with England, Scotland and Slovakia. We had chances in London and Glasgow but didn’t take them.
“A big influence on my career so far has been Bostjan Cesar. He is a big player and a big man. I used to watch him on TV as a kid and then I was playing with him for the national team.
“When I first turned up for Slovenia, he came to me and said that whatever help I needed he was there for me always.
“He said that we were all there to represent our country so every player was equal I just had to show my best performance.
“We understood each other on the field right away and I think we showed that at Wembley against England in the World Cup qualifiers.”
And the former Dinamo Bucharest stopper revealed he’d had to mature as a player after joining the Russian giants last year.
He said: “Zenit are a serious name in modern football. At first the move here didn’t go smoothly for me, but now I understand how you need to behave on the pitch at a club like this.
“For any player now, they must have the ability to adapt to a different environment and I’ve done that now.
“It has always been my dream to play for a big club like this. I can achieve great things here.
“Especially now that we’re competing in the Champions League and Europa League, with games like Celtic on Thursday night.
“Russian clubs belong in the Champions League and that’s where Zenit should be.”
Mevlja admits playing under former Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini is a dream for him too. He added: “I started my football education in an amazing location – the Italy/Slovenia border in a town called Nessebar. At the train station, if you go right you’re in Italy and left to Slovenia.
“My whole family have always supported AC Milan, so that’s my team. But of course I remember watching Mancini as a player. He was very good and I watched him mostly towards the end of his career at Lazio.
“As a defender, how would I stop Mancini? Oh, I’d need to be very powerful and quick. I’d need to be confident that I could deal with him because he was a fantastic striker.
“I’d have to get very tight to him, mark him closely. Certainly, I couldn’t give him a lot of space in the box.
“But working for a coach like Mancini is an absolute pleasure for me.”
Meanwhile, Zenit keeper Yuri Lodygin has backed Mevlja and his team to stand up to the atmosphere of a European night at Parkhead and not wilt under the pressure.
Russia internationalist Lodygin saved two injury-time penalties in Zenit’s last warm-up before they play Celtic when they beat Maribor 3-1 on Saturday.
And he said: “We know we will be under big pressure from their fans. I think that is going to be the most important part of the tie for us – to deal with the fans and the atmosphere.
“We have to understand that it will be a big advantage to Celtic and we all know what we are going in to.
“We have to be secure and organised and we have to match Celtic for the passion they will show.”