When Brendan Rodgers first arrived at Celtic, he knew the task ahead of him. It was to revitalise a squad that had plateaued under Ronny Deila, ensure domestic dominance was maintained against newly promoted Rangers and forge ahead with efforts to make the Hoops a competitive force in Europe once again.
He’s made two of these tasks look easy, but the Europe question has yet to be answered. Everyone’s going to get a good look at how much progress has been made on this front on Wednesday night when the Scottish champions travel to Belgium to face Anderlecht in the UEFA Champions League.
There’s an argument to be made that Rodgers made the most important decision of his Celtic career so far in those opening days of his reign as Hoops boss – reinforcing that Scott Brown is the beating heart of the club on the pitch.
Rodgers flew Brown down to London and invited him for dinner in his home to discuss his future as captain. It might have been easy for Rodgers to write off the 32-year-old, as most people did at the end of the 2015/16 season. He could have slowly transitioned the midfielder out of regular first-team action and brought in fresh blood to lead the team forward. Even Brown himself has admitted he might not even have lasted six months more had the former Liverpool boss not arrived last summer.
Instead, Rodgers re-iterated how important Brown was going to be to his Celtic side and sparked a renaissance that saw the captain reach the heights required to arguably be their best player during last season’s invincible treble-winning success. It was genius management and foresight.
Heading into Wednesday night’s match with Anderlecht, the Celtic captain is just as important as ever. No outfield player has made more starts than him this season, which is remarkable when you consider he is now well into his thirties, came out of international retirement and has a well-documented history of injury problems.
Far from slowing down, he’s become the benchmark and the pinnacle of how a Celtic player should conduct themselves on the pitch. He sets the tone for every positive Celtic performance and that was never more evident than in Saturday’s derby at Ibrox. He dominated the 90 minutes against Rangers, with Pedro Caixinha’s new midfield trio of Carlos Pena, Graham Dorrans and Ryan Jack unable to get close to him.
He’s in his element in these big pressure encounters. He looks for the ball, he brings teammates into the game, he covers his defenders. He becomes a true, classic captain.
It’s clear in the domestic environment he thrives, but the questions is, can he make the step up to European competition against Anderlecht?
In Europe, Brown plays a very different role in Rodgers’ side than he does in domestic action. He sits much deeper, right in front of the back four and acts as the team’s midfield spoiler. Last season he played his role perfectly, despite some heavy defeats and his side finishing bottom of their group.
He made 30 interceptions across the six group stage matches against Manchester City, Borussia Monchengladbach and Barcelona. That was more than any other player in the competition, a record which was held until well into April, despite Celtic going out in December.
Of course, there’s a truth this was because the Hoops had so much defending to do in a tough group, but it also highlights how important he is to those defensive efforts, which will be required away from home in Belgium on Wednesday.
Winning the ball and providing the basis for which Celtic’s more attacking, creative players can flourish will be his task and in arguably the best form of his career, he’s well placed to be the team’s stand-out man once again.
In attitude and application, he’s peerless in Brendan Rodgers’ eleven and it’ll be his leadership that defines what the Hoops get out of Anderlecht. A draw is a must, with a win possible.
Can the Celtic captain live up to his billing as one of the best in the club’s history?