BRENDAN RODGERS has been working overtime with his central defence as he prepares for tonight’s Europa League clash with Zenit St Petersburg at Parkhead.
The Hoops back lot has looked shaky and vulnerable in recent games and slack passing from Jozo Simunovic cost them both goals in their 3-2 Scottish Cup win over Partick Thistle on Saturday.
The defence was also posted awol when Youssef Mulumbu scored Kilmarnock’s winner the previous weekend to inflict only the second defeat from Scottish opposition during Rodgers’ reign.
Now the Irishman is drilling the importance of total concentration in this evening’s first leg against the Russians to Simunovic, Kristoffer Ajer and Jack Hendry.
The Celtic manager is well aware of the dangers posed by Roberto Mancini’s outfit who were the top scorers with 17 goals in the Europa League sections and who won five out of six games and drew the other.
He said: “You can’t take your eye off anything for a second. You’ve got to be constantly concentrated because of the level of player.
“Sometimes we give away soft goals purely on concentration level, nothing else.
“Domestically, you can maybe assess the position and come away. At this level, you’ve got to keep checking your space because the minute you come away from it and you don’t check, they’re gone.
“We saw a goal against Bayern Munich like that. Our centre-half checks the winger, thinks he’s in good position, doesn’t check again for a few seconds and when he looks back he’s gone.
“We have to be real, you’re not going to get a 25 or 26-year-old centre-half who’s at the top of his game. So, at Celtic, you’re either going to have a young player whom you are nurturing, developing and coaching and putting into these situations to be better, such as Simunovic, Ajer, Hendry.
“Or you have the centre-halves at the other end towards the end of their careers with that experience.
“Celtic won’t be able to spend £20million on a 26-year-old centre half, so the only way you can work it is by giving them coaching and experience.
“It’s a harsh environment to be trying to learn in, but that’s where we’re at and we have to always find ways to help the players improve, to find the solutions when they do have issues in games.
“It’s important for us to defend well. That has been the disappointment for us at this level. If you can take a clean sheet from your home game and go away then you could argue it could be difficult then for the home team in the second leg.
“There’s that bit more anxiety, more pressure. We saw it in Rosenborg. We saw it out in Astana. There was a period of 20 minutes where we conceded goals, but the minute we got the goal we killed the tie.
“Probably sometimes what has deflated the crowd a wee bit is when we’ve made mistakes and given away cheap goals.
“The idea, hopefully, is not to do that.”