IT was a joke. Probably.

A silly throwaway line handed out by a football manager to a rag-tag bunch of hacks 24 hours or so before his team play what is a huge match in European football.

But, then, Brendan Rodgers is far more serious than silly. So, when he was asked about his uncharacteristic celebration after Callum McGregor’s quite brilliant goal against Zenit St Petersburg – a run down the wing which Danny McGrain would have been proud of – he just might have meant what he had in mind for an encore.

That’s how much this Europa League tie means to the man and his football club. It’s not Lisbon, Leeds or Seville – what is? – but, in 2018, getting to the last 16 of this competition would be something to celebrate. Even in a silly manner.

Read more: All the pressure on Zenit, says Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers

Last season, before and during Rodgers led Celtic to the group stage of the Champions League, the Northern Irishman made the point, and it is germane, that his team were up against it just to get through qualification.

And again, tonight, in Russia, this great football club, should they win, would be beating the odds. And by some.

Ach, could you blame him for going a touch mad if Celtic do it?

“It might be a full lap this time,” said Rodgers about his potential reaction to a positive result. “It’s emotion. One, we were playing well and two it was the brilliance of the goal. It was the 78th minute and we scored a brilliant goal. To see our young squad play with such confidence and score like that . . . listen, hopefully I’m running up the touchline again. I’d take that.

“I take pride in staying calm, but I’m no different to any other manager in how I feel inside. I’ve played and coached in a lot of games and I’ve trained myself to keep my emotions intact, but my feelings are like anyone else inside.

“I tend to reserve it and contain it, but sometimes it comes out. I’m an emotional guy and it was a great moment for us in the game. What was pleasing was that we made the next step forward after the goal – and that was not conceding – which gives us a platform going into this game.”

Read more: Zenit boss Roberto Mancini remains ice cool as temperatures plummet ahead of Celtic clash​

And it is a more than a decent platform.

Celtic have a hell of a chance here but then they have been before and fallen short. Not a lot, it must be said, over many years which is why a win tonight would be an achievement. And that goes especially for the manager, not that he’s having any of that.

“For me, personally, I never really think along that route,” said Rodgers. “I see the team grow and develop and improve. Okay, some of the numbers maybe don’t match last season but that was an historical season. But there are still lots of great positives of where we’ve been this year and where we are as a club.

“If we can make that next step tomorrow night then that will be absolutely brilliant for us and we can go on and focus on a last-16 tie. If we can play at the level we played in the first game we can be a match for any team.

“But, of course, there will always be an expectancy on the other team because of their standing and probably the quality that they have.

“It’s more for the club and supporters. I’ve shown in my time here that I want to leave a legacy where we can continually improve. We have done that this year and this would be another big step, given the level of competition.”

Read more: Scott Brown hopes Celtic can replicate famous victory over Russian opposition

An early goal would help. It rarely if never doesn’t. This would mean, calculators at the ready, that Zenit would need three at least.

“We would want to score,” said Rodgers. “I think that’s more the point. Our idea is to go and win the game. If we can’t win it, okay, try not to lose it. That’s key. We believe we can score and that’s what we want to do.

“It’s important that we keep our concentration. You see it at all levels. You saw the Chelsea game on Tuesday [1-1 against Barcelona]. Chelsea were outstanding in their defensive organisation. It only takes one mistake at that level and players punish you.

‘Last week we never had that. We just had one moment where they got down the side and crossed it and Dorus [De Vries] made a good save. Apart from that we defended very well. If we can do that and attack well alongside that, we believe we will score.”

Celtic in Europe, at any stage, is a fascinating watch. Yet for all this unpredictability, Rodgers backs his players to deliver and there is as much chance as them winning by three or losing by five.

“In a lot of the away games in Europe, if you take out the real superpowers that we’ve faced, then we’ve generally played pretty well,” said the manager.

“It’s important that you stay calm. No matter how it goes, we are always going to be in the game. When the group are together and focused, we are playing well. It gives us a great chance but we respect it’s a tough game.

“We don’t have to be perfect to win the game but we know we need to be at a high level. Of course, Zenit are going to be motivated after we dominated every aspect of the game last week. They will probably be disappointed with their performance,

“So, they will want to show in front of their own supporters that they are much better than that. For us, it’s a case of matching that intensity and aggression, staying calm and when we have the ball, to show our qualities.”

HeraldScotland | Sport

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