IT was inevitable that the discussion would turn to the impending meeting with Real Madrid at some point when the Celtic players sat down to lunch after training at Lennoxtown yesterday.
Real are the holders of the Champions League, are managed by the legendary Carlo Ancelotti and are expected to field, among others, world icons Karim Benzema, Thibaut Courtois, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric.
So there was plenty of heated discussion between Callum McGregor and his team-mates about their opponents and their Group F opener at Parkhead tonight as they ate.
Still, it was clear when they spoke that no one in the Scottish champions’ squad will be impressed when the encounter with the Spanish superstars begins.
Matt O’Riley, the playmaker who once again impressed in Saturday’s 4-0 triumph over Rangers and is certain to start tonight, is confident the in-form Ange Postecoglou side can compete and record a famous victory.
He is fully aware that his side were Britain’s first European Cup winners in 1967 and has no interest in swapping shirts with any of their world-famous rivals after the final whistle.
“The match against Real was a topic of conversation over lunch,” he said during the pre-match press conference at Celtic Park. “We were all just there. I heard someone say, “I think we have a good chance.” We all just bit on it and agreed.
“We’re not going to get in the game and not give it a shot. If we don’t believe we can win, you can see that from the start. I hope you see a team that is right and really wants to win.
“I don’t know why you would want to swap shirts. Celtic are a great club. We also have a star on our badge, you know. That says something in itself. To be honest, when you’re at Celtic Park with the atmosphere in these stands, anything can happen. This has been proven in the past. So why not?
“If you draw here, it’s considered a defeat. It’s new for me. It might not be exactly the same this time around, but when we get out of here, we’re expected to win. This is what we will try to do.
O’Riley, a £1.5million signing from English League 1 club MK Dons in January, had dreamed of playing in the Champions League since he was a Barcelona-obsessed lad growing up in London.
He has limited European experience – he played in both Conference League play-off defeats to Norwegian minnows Bodo/Glimt last season – but he’s not lacking in confidence at the moment.
The 21-year-old, who netted the opening two goals at the weekend, will be hoping he can replicate his sparkling domestic form against Real.
“I have always been mentally ready to take part in this competition,” he said. “Obviously you can’t control what’s going to happen, but that’s always been my goal.
“I feel that I have improved a lot and I feel quite free when I am on the pitch. It’s something I’m working on. I play without fear and when you do that, you have every chance of succeeding.
The attacking midfielder has enjoyed a meteoric rise since arriving in Scotland. he was playing for MK Dons against Cheltenham in an English third tier game in front of 3,704 fans at Whaddon Road this time last year.
“Things have changed a lot since then,” he said. “Back then, I didn’t expect to be where I am now. But all the hard work has paid off and I’m in a good place.
“I remember that Cheltenham game well. There were obviously quite a few fewer fans. They are probably one of the smallest teams in League One.
“It’s hard not to be motivated when there are 60,000 fans behind you. It gives you that extra willpower, that extra yard to chase a runner. So that helps a lot. Playing in front of these crowds has helped prepare me for big nights like this.
O’Riley is a huge admirer of Modric, the Croatian internationalist who is a former Ballon d’Or winner and World Cup runner-up and can’t wait to see how he fares in direct opposition to his revered rival.
“He’s one in particular that I watched when I was younger,” he said. “He’s 36 now and still playing at the highest level, which is impressive.
“I watch a lot of these guys on TV. You can pick things up everywhere or see the shape of the teams and the areas you can exploit. It is important to keep learning your craft. They have an abundance of good players and it will be good to see where we are.
However, the Denmark Under-21 internationalist hopes it’s a night to forget for the Real side who beat Liverpool 1-0 in Paris in May to lift the Champions League trophy for a 14th chance record.
“You don’t want them to take advantage of it,” he said. “Of course not. That will be our intention. As I said before, you have to respect the opposition. They have very good players. But I think we have good players too, so let’s see what we can TO DO.
“There aren’t a lot of teams that play at the intensity that we do, especially the speed on the ball and the way we press as well. We’ll try to make it as uncomfortable as possible for them. We we have to be ready to do that.
“I think Saturday’s game proves that we are already a good team. We are not a team that enters this competition just to participate in it, we are a team capable of hurting the opponent, so we will do our best to do so.