BRENDAN Rodgers heaped praise last night on his players for reaching the last 32 of the Europa League for the second successive season - then said he hoped his Celtic squad would be even stronger by the time the matches come round in mid-February. Despite going down 2-1 to FC Salzburg in the final match day, the Parkhead side squeezed into the knockout stages of this tournament courtesy of an 86th minute equaliser by Rosenborg’s Tore Reginiusen in Leipzig. It is the first time they have ever qualified from a continental group at the expense of a team from the top four divisions on the continent.

“We are trying to represent Scottish football in the best way and that’s difficult when you look at the investments in the major leagues,” said Rodgers. “So this is something the players can be proud of. Everyone looked at the group and thought if we could get through it would be a brilliant achievement.

“There are still lots of areas we can improve on but for where the players were from when I first came in to being able to finish above a team like Leipzig shows their determination and progression. It’s great for us to be in the last 32.”

Asked specifically about whether the club are likely to strengthen during the January window ahead of these games,s Rodgers said: “I hope we’ll be stronger. We are a squad that needs all our best players available. There’s also a window to go through in January so I would hope when the draw is made we’ll be fresher and stronger because I thought we looked a tad leggy at times this evening.”

While reluctant to outline his ambitions for the remainder of the tournament ahead of Monday’s draw in Nyon where teams like Arsenal and Chelsea could lurk, Rogers said he was hopeful of going one better than last year, when they crashed out at the last 32 stage to Zenit St Petersburg.

“I don’t know how far we can go. The objective was to qualify and over the course of the campaign we earned that right. You only need to look at the draw now to see there are some fantastic teams. The question is, can we go one step further again? We made the last 32 last time so can we then take another step forward? That would be the idea.”

Rodgers expressed concern for Ryan Christie, who left the venue on crutches, and said he felt for goalkeeper Craig Gordon, who pulled off many fine saves on the night before the slip up which let Fredrik Gulbrandsen in for Salzburg’s second goal. He admitted to mixed emotions on the night considering he feels his team can play better.

“It was mixed emotion for me because the one thing I looked for tonight was a performance. We didn’t play well, it was a simple as that.Craig was brilliant all evening and made some really good saves but our back four weren’t looking for the ball so he had to go longer with it.

"Did I think we were going through? Not until I heard the noise then a couple of guys on the bench said that Rosenborg had scored. I could see the punters walking out. When you see them walking out it’s normally a sign that they think it is over.”

The only blot on an otherwise positive night for the club was the incident where Salzburg defender Andre Ramalho appeared to be struck by a missile whilst celebrating his side’s first goal.