The spirit of Seville: Mjallby proud of Celtic stars for matching the class of 2003
00:00 GMT, 20 December 2012
Johan Mjallby placed the achievement of qualifying for the last 16 of the Champions League on a par with reaching the UEFA Cup Final in 2003.
Celtic will discover which one of the seven sides they will face in next year’s knockout stages when the draw is made in Nyon at 10.30.
The German trio of Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and Schalke are joined by Manchester United, Paris St Germain, Malaga and Juventus as the Scottish champions’ potential opponents.
Mjallby and Neil Lennon were pillars of Martin O’Neill’s side which tried, but failed, to make it out of the group stage, yet which managed to go all the way to Seville.
They're just champion: Johan Mjallby – pictured presenting a donation to Yorkhill Hospital – says it's as good as 2003
And the Swede feels that in successfully hurdling two qualifiers before eliminating Benfica and Spartak Moscow and beating Barcelona, the class of 2012-13 can take pride of place alongside the team of 10 years ago.
Asked if this year’s campaign was already as good as that of 2003, the Celtic assistant manager said: ‘Yes, it is for me personally. Seville, that was the biggest disappointment as well, because if you are in a final there’s only two teams left.
‘But it was maybe the biggest achievement in a way, as we beat a lot of good teams on the way.
‘When I came back here three years ago, obviously I wasn’t too sure that I would be sitting here with a chance to play the last 16 of the Champions League.
‘It’s been great having that chance and I think we have improved a lot of the players as well; that’s a part of management and what you want to do.
‘It’s something we are really happy with.
‘We are so proud of the players and it is one of the greatest achievements that I have been involved in to make it to the last 16.
‘You are usually only happy when you win things, win titles — but the Champions League is the Champions League.
‘Usually, money talks, and that is why we are really happy. The team I played in had better financial resources than this team.’
Magic moment: Kris Commons rifles home the penalty which sealed Celtic's progression
Celtic’s run this season has made players like Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama household names around the continent. And Mjallby feels that watching such players develop and thrive under the most intense scrutiny football has to offer has been every bit as satisfying as the results.
‘We didn’t know when we started this adventure if we were good enough to play without the ball,’ he added.
‘It’s always going to be different playing in Europe; a lot of teams are very good at keeping the ball and we have to give up a lot of possession to other teams. When you’re not used to it, you don’t know.
‘Yes, we played in the Europa League last season but the Champions League is a step up — and these teams are even better.
‘We didn’t really know if we had the capabilities to defend as a team without the ball for long spells, but I think we have taken a lot of confidence from it — and we have shown that we can do it.
‘You have to remember that we have scored quite a few goals as well and, apart from the Benfica game, we have looked quite dangerous on the counter-attack.
‘It’s great that we can maybe change the style of play now and again and, if you have that in your back pocket, it will stand you in good stead.’
Tough to take: Mjallby (right), Henrik Larssen and Ulrik Laursen reflect on a painful defeat in Seville
Celtic will be at home first on either February 12, 13, 19 or 20 before playing the second leg away from home on March 5, 6, 12 or 13 and Mjallby admits there are some sides he would relish playing more than others.
‘The ones I would rather not get are Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Manchester United — you have to remember they’re top of the Barclays Premier League, one of the hardest leagues in the world,’ he added.
‘You can say maybe from the glamour point of view it would be a nice to get Manchester United, but you have to remember they are a great team who always play in the Champions League and do well. So that would be very hard.
‘PSG would be hard, too. They have spent so much money. And Juventus.
‘Probably Schalke and Malaga are the two, on paper, who might seem the best to get.
‘But the good thing for us is that, whoever we get, we are not going to be the favourites. The pressure will be more on the other team.
‘I think it is easy now and then to be the underdog. Usually when we play domestically in Scotland we won’t be underdogs, so it’s a bit different.
‘I think our support accepts that we might not have the ball all the time, but we have taken a lot of confidence.’