CELTIC’S first group-stage match of last season’s Champions League was painful viewing for everyone involved with the club.
A 7-0 thrashing by Barcelona wasn’t the way Brendan Rodgers wanted to kick off his new era at Parkhead.
The players were left a little shell-shocked by the unusual experience of suffering such a heavy defeat.
Supporters, as ever, travelled in large numbers, but the Spanish sunshine didn’t seem quite so warming after seeing Messi, Neymar and Co. thrash their favourites.
Perhaps, most of all, it was a hugely painful time for goalkeeper Craig Gordon.
He was forced to watch from the bench as the ball, time and again, flew past Dorus De Vries.
Some keepers would take the view that it was a good game to miss, but not Gordon.
He still winces when he recalls how much it hurt to be dropped.
A year on, he’s firmly established as No. 1 for club and country.
He’ll get the chance to pit his wits against Neymar – the world’s most-expensive footballer – when Paris Saint-Germain come to Celtic Park for this season’s Champions League group-stage opener on Tuesday.
He said: “I didn’t feel great when I missed playing against Barca last season.
“I’d worked all of my career to get somewhere like that.
“It was a blow, but that’s football. I’ve had plenty of other ones, with injuries and things.
“At least it wasn’t too bad. I wasn’t out for another two years. It was one game.
“I had to put it into context quite quickly and try to get myself back in.
“Dorus got into the team and played a couple of league games before going to Barcelona.
“So I was aware I wasn’t going to be playing in the days leading up to the game.
“That didn’t make it any easier to take, but you get on with it and do the best you can.”
Brendan Rodgers dropped Gordon because he didn’t feel he was good enough with the ball at his feet.
That deficiency was soon ironed out on the training pitch and the big Scotland keeper has admitted he’s now a better goalkeeper for the experience.
You could even argue that Celtic are better for that thumping in Catalonia.
It was a time for reflection and a period where any doubters decided they’d better listen to Brendan Rodgers’ plan to take the team forward.
Although they finished bottom of their group, there were some encouraging performances.
The Scottish Champions drew home and away against Manchester City, and got a point away at Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Things went even better on the domestic front – an unbeaten season with all three trophies sitting in the boardroom.
The former Hearts and Sunderland goalie believes Celtic are now much better equipped for a Champions League campaign that will see them face PSG, Bayern Munich and Anderlecht.
He went on: “We’ve been together longer and we’ve worked at the style of play and the formations the manager wants us to play.
“From that point of view, tactically, we’re better than we were at the start of the last campaign.
“The Champions League, and going to places like Paris and Munich, is something we can look forward to.
“It’s what you work so hard for – to test yourself on that stage.
“It’s another really difficult group, so we’re going to have to play really well to try to come out of it.
“Last season we did well at times in a few games, but we need to step that up again this year.
“We want to give a good account of ourselves and try to get some more points this time.
“We’ll try to express ourselves, but we’re playing against good teams.
“We’re going to have to defend well and counter-attack at times.It’s not something we get to do very often in Scotland.
“But we’ve got good pace in the team and we have guys who can finish.
“We go into these games with a chance to play in a slightly different way and it’s something that could suit us.”
Gordon is a cool, calm character. Perhaps that’s why he’s been such a successful goalkeeper.
You have to believe him when he says he relishes facing strikers like Neymar.
The Brazilian has made all the headlines, but he’s just been joined by Monaco wonder-kid Kylian Mbappé.
There’s also Uruguayan Edinson Cavani – one of only three players to have scored in 50% of his total outings in the Champions League.
Gordon chuckles when asked to consider the merits of the French side’s strikeforce.
He said: “It’s not bad! I wouldn’t swap them for ours!
“It’s great to think you’re going to play against the talent they’ve got.
“I think we’ll be quietly confident that we can do something against them and go and get a result.
“We’re not daunted, we just want to go and play. We’re confident in our own ability.
“We believe in our own team to be able to handle that and try to do something in the game ourselves.
“It doesn’t matter who’s in the other team, we go into every game thinking we have a chance of winning it.”
Preparation is the key for a modern keeper, and Gordon has been studying the way the PSG strikers operate.
He added: “We will watch videos to see how we’re going to go about it defensively.
“It’s not going to be easy to do, but we’ll see if there are areas where we can stop them.
“For every game, we look at the opposition. The manager is really good in his preparation and analysis of teams.
“The information we need is more readily available nowadays, but I remember playing a European tie under Craig Levein, at Hearts, and he had a very in-depth analysis of the opposition back then.
“We always try to get that little edge in terms of analysis, but when you’re out there you don’t always know what everyone is going to do.
“We’ll get a little idea. But when teams have so much, quality it’s sometimes difficult to deal with.”
Celtic will need to produce top defensive displays to prosper at this level.
They can’t afford to repeat the performance that saw Astana stick four goals past Gordon in Kazakhstan in the second leg of the play-off.
Having Belgian defender Dedryck Boyata back from injury will be a boost, although he’s unlikely to make Tuesday’s game.
Gordon said: “Dedryck has a great attitude. He works so hard.
“He’s good in the air, he’s quick, he can score goals, and he’s a real threat at set-pieces for us.
“We would like him back as soon as possible.
“If we can get him and Jozo Simunovic fit and together, it’s a good partnership – as they showed at the end of last season.”
There will be a huge international focus on Celtic Park this week. The footballing world wants to see how the super-rich team from Paris performs.
Being the support act, reckons Gordon, might not be a bad thing.
He said: “There’s a little bit less pressure because we’ll be expected to be beaten.
“But from inside the dressing-room, we know we have a chance to take something from these games – regardless if it’s home or away.”
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