Desmond Kane

Celtic captain Scott Brown undaunted by trip into unknown

Desmond Kane

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Celtic captain Scott Brown challenges Andrea Pirlo of Juventus during last season's Champions League.

It could perhaps be best described as doing the hard yards. If the end destination of six august days in August charts a course to the Champions League group stages, Scott Brown, lately a fairly rampaging captain of Celtic and Scotland, will happily accept such a peculiar odyssey.

Celtic venture onto a plastic pitch in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana on Tuesday afternoon, five hours ahead of British Summer Time, for the first leg of their Champions League final play-off tie against Shakhter Karagandy, a side whose main potency lies in their mystique. It is a six-and-a-half hour flight from Scotland to a city described by some as the heart of ‘Eurasia’. It is more Asia than Europe in football parlance.

From Glasgow to Wembley Stadium to the Astana Arena via Aberdeen, Brown will have covered around 6,650 miles in less than a week when he returns to Scotland with his team-mates on Wednesday. It is not quite of Magellan proportions, but this intrepid football explorer aims to navigate a path home with some parchments of good tidings among his hand luggage.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s fictional character Borat is better known to Neil Lennon's side than opponents ranked 324th in Europe. But Celtic are well informed regarding the riches that lie in store from a slightly odd looking outpost erected by petrodollars. The Scottish champions gleaned an estimated £22m from reaching the last 16 last season.

"Reaching the group stages is not just vital for the club, it sets the season up for everybody,” said Brown. “It is vital for the fans, and fans all over Scotland that we do well in the Champions League. We are representing Scotland in Europe.”

That they are. Hibernian, St Johnstone and Motherwell are already of the Europa League.

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The Astana Arena in Kazakhstan where Celtic will play a key game on Tuesday.

Celtic's 2-0 win at Aberdeen is dwarfed by the importance of this occasion. They are as likely to retain the new Scottish Premiership as Astana is to have snow in winter: it is officially the second coldest capital city in the world. Thankfully, it is summer in Astana. Yet this is still creepy territory for football prospectors hankering after yesteryear.

Celtic's gilded memories remain fresh. They lost to Juventus over two legs in the knock-out stages, but only after they had toppled Barcelona, Spartak Moscow and drawn with Europa League finalists Benfica.

They were the first British side to snare the European Cup in 1967. They will be the first British side to wash up in Kazakhstan for competitive fare.

Not quite a journey into the heart of darkness, but it will be if Celtic do not see the light after next week's second leg with Shakhter on Wednesday at Celtic Park.

“It is a huge match for the club. I've been in this situation last year, and it is always hard going away to the qualifiers because you never know what to expect,” said Brown.

"Especially since we are back on an astroturf pitch. It is going to be really difficult with all the travelling involved, and getting ready for it. They're from Kazakhstan, and we don't know too much about them yet, but I'm sure the gaffer is doing his homework so we know what to expect when we step out on to that pitch.

"I think if we can get a goal... a win, a draw... we just want a positive outcome before the second leg. We can’t think about anything else apart from a good result.

“Our aim must be to have the upper hand before we face them in Glasgow."

It remains one of life's truisms that you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep. In such a respect, probably in every aspect, Brown is mixing in lofty circles.

At the age of 28, here is a maturing figure. Brown is far removed from the precocious but unpredictable and combustible combative midfielder the Glasgow club paid £4.4 million to sign from Hibernian in 2007. That looks to have been a wise investment when one considers the amount of excess cash sloshing around some outposts of the modern game.

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Scott Brown battles Barcelona's Lionel Messi for possession at the Camp Nou.

Six years seems like an eternity in football, but if ever there was evidence to suggest these are the days of his life, it could be unearthed in and around Wembley Stadium, the home of football that seemed like a home from home for Brown.

Brown coped admirably against Jack Wilshere of Arsenal and the Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard as war raged for supremacy in the heat of exchanging friendly fire last week. He also seems to have improved his passing range. It was a point picked up on by Chelsea’s everblue Frank Lampard.

"I haven’t come up against Scott Brown before, but I thought he was very impressive, especially in the first half. It’s the first time I’ve seen him in the flesh and he stood out," said Lampard.

Having coped with Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Andrea Pirlo last season, Brown is distinctly indifferent about it all.

"Of course, it was good facing Gerrard, Wilshere and Lampard at Wembley, but I've been in against sides like Barcelona and Juventus in the Champions League so I knew what to expect."

Brown played in Celtic's progress to the last 16 of the tournament in 2007/08 buoyed by a 2-1 win over then-holders AC Milan. Georgios Samaras is the only other remaining member of the Celtic squad from their appearance in the 2008 group stages.

Celtic managed a 0-0 draw on a wretched plastic pitch with Swedish champions Elfsborg 1-0 on aggregate in the previous round.

"This is a dangerous match for us,” said Brown. “There is no use saying we are going to go out all guns blazing, saying we're going to try to win two or 3-0. It would be amazing if we could, but we just want to be well in contention for the second leg and get them back in front of a full house at Parkhead with the tie well alive so we can finish the job.”

Celtic have sold Victor Wanyama to Southampton for £12.5m, Gary Hooper to Norwich City in a transfer worth £5.5m and Kelvin Wilson to Nottingham Forest for around £3m. They have been well compensated for their losses. But they are still losses.

"It is just about getting as strong a side as we can out there with everybody as fit as possible,” added Brown. “We're going to be lacking a bit of sharpness, but it is starting to come. We've only played four or five competitive games. Some boys haven't played all the friendlies, and we have some guys coming back from injury.”

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Scott Brown samples Elfsborg's plastic pitch in the previous qualifying round.

The exit of Wilson could yet damage Celtic. Celtic signed the young Netherlands Under-21 defender Virgil van Dijk, but they are likely to start with Steven Mouyokolo alongside Efe Ambrose in central defence.

"Kelvin is a huge loss to us,” said Brown. “We were sorry to see him go, but we just need to regroup and have faith in our squad.

"Kelvin is very quick, and has been like a rock at the back for us because he talks all the way through the game, telling you where you should go and what you should be doing.

"He is going to be a great miss, but we have made a great signing in Virgil. It would be welcome to get him fit, and get him back for these couple of matches.”

Celtic are interested in Schalke forward Timo Pukki, Alfred Finnbogason of Heerenveen and Marko Arnautovic of Werden Bremen, but have yet to conclude any deals. One suspects they will be more forthcoming if Celtic return to the group stages. “I’m sure the manager, and the board will sort it out. They are working on it. We would welcome a striker. We'll wait to see what happens.”

Brown is a great believer of taking care of his own business. He did not pay much attention to the hyperbole surrounding Wayne Rooney before facing England. "He did well, but at the end of the day it is all about us,” commented Brown. “I'm not here to talk about any other players. I'm here for Scotland."

On Tuesday night, he will need to be there, wherever there is, for Celtic.

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