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After keeping out Ibrahimovic, Celtic keeper Joe Hart is ready for anything Europe can throw at him

© SNS GroupJoe Hart applauds the fans after Celtic’s win over Jablonec on Thursday night
Joe Hart applauds the fans after Celtic’s win over Jablonec on Thursday night

When you have saved a penalty from Zlatan Ibrahimovic to help your team reach the Champions League semi-finals, European football is always likely to hold a special place in your affections.

Celtic’s new keeper, Joe Hart, was that man, his effort denying the Swede at the Parc des Princes in 2016 as Manchester City saw off Paris Saint-Germain to reach the last four, where they found Real Madrid just too good.

Five years and five clubs on, it is a place in the Europa League group stages that is in the Englishman’s sights, with AZ Alkmaar due at Celtic Park on Wednesday in the competition’s play-off round.

And after shutting out the Czechs of Jablonec at the Glasgow ground last Thursday night to set up the chance, the 34-year-old is as enthusiastic as a teenager who has just broken into the side.

“Playing in the Europa League group stages is an awesome prospect,” said Hart.

“I have always loved playing in Europe with some huge teams in it.

“Nights like Thursday are amazing. We were playing in a qualifier – yet it was absolutely going off.

“God knows what will happen if we make it to the group stages, and beyond.

“Group-stage football is what this club wants, and what this club needs. It is up to us to get us in it.”

Hart acknowledges that AZ Alkmaar should provide Ange Postecoglou’s men with a significantly tougher examination than the opposition from the Czech Republic.

They finished third top of the Dutch League last season, just a point behind runners-up, PSV Eindhoven.

“It is going to be a step up, of course it is,” said Hart.

“Listen, I’m not going to claim that I know everything about them. But I am certainly going to know a lot more about them when it comes round.

“Against Jablonec last Thursday, we saw what it meant to the fans.

“We got the win, and people were happy. I think we need to keep it as simple as that for now.

“We are going to grow as a team, and we are going to look to entertain.

“But ultimately we are going to make people’s weeks a whole lot better, after a difficult year or so, if we win games.”

Joe Hart saves Zlatan Ibrahimoc’s penalty in 2016 © Guillaume Horcajuelo/EPA/Shutter
Joe Hart saves Zlatan Ibrahimoc’s penalty in 2016 (Pic: Guillaume Horcajuelo/EPA/Shutterstock)

Postecoglou promised a swashbuckling Celtic on his appointment. Hart’s responsibility will be to help ensure the swash does not buckle.

His personal haul of 75 England caps point to a high level of ability, and he gave the Hoops faithful an indication of his talent with a couple of good saves in the second half against the Czechs.

“Those stops definitely boosted my confidence,” Hart admitted after playing in front of a Celtic Park sell-out.

“We are trying to start something here. We are going to try to play some expansive football, and that is going to require me to make the odd save.

“We are going to have to bail each other out of a few situations.

“However, I think the overall thing that was great to see was the pressure that we applied, and the application.

“We played some really good football throughout the game, created some really good chances, and I did my job, which is to keep the ball out of the net as best I can.”

That pragmatism comes with the knowledge that, for Postecoglou’s plan to work, Celtic will have to take a the leap of faith by believing that the best form of defence is to attack.

“There is an understanding, but it’s an ask that we all have to buy into. The entire squad needs to be on board,” said Hart.

“It is a style of football that the boss wants us to play. He wants us to play with no fear, and he backs us.

“He puts that responsibility on himself to make us feel like we can play. It is something that we are trying our best to do.

“But the baseline is hard work, dedication, understanding and all being on the same side.”

The former Manchester City star warns there will be bumps along the way, and also about the danger posed by today’s Premier Sports Cup opponents, Hearts.

“I know football. I have been in teams that are expected to win and it is just not that simple,” he said.

“You can’t win the cup final unless you win these kind of games.

“It is all about application. It is all about working with the guys off the field. We are at home. That is huge.

“Like I say, you worry about the future when it comes. Right now, it is all about beating Hearts.”