CELTIC manager Neil Lennon insists Efe Ambrose will be in his plans for Tuesday night’s Champions League last-16 meeting with Juventus in Glasgow, just 48 hours after the defender’s scheduled appearance in the Africa Cup of Nations Final in Johannesburg.
Ambrose is poised to line up for Nigeria against Burkina Faso tomorrow night as his country bid to become champions of their continent for the first time since 1994.
The 24-year-old has not played for Celtic since 2 January, having spent the last month on international duty which could culminate in the biggest achievement of his career so far this weekend.
Ambrose faces a 6,000 mile, ten-hour flight to Glasgow on Monday and will not be able to rejoin the Celtic squad until the day of their last-16, first-leg showdown with Juventus. The Italian champions are also awaiting the return of one of their players, midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah who is involved in today’s third place play-off match for Ghana against Mali.
Such has been Ambrose’s impact in the Champions League for Celtic since joining the club this season, playing in all but one of their group fixtures and forming a solid central defensive partnership with Kelvin Wilson, that Lennon is keen to get him straight back into his side.
“We are working on how to get Efe back as soon as possible,” said Lennon. “Peter Lawwell and the player’s agent are dealing with it. It is a conundrum. Juventus have asked for Asamoah to get back in time and we are putting measures in place to get Efe back.
“We will need feedback on what kind of condition he’s going to be in after he plays in a huge international game and then a ten, 12-hour flight. That remains to be seen. He’s a very fit boy. We want him back, obviously, and we will see what condition he is in. Even if he doesn’t start he will definitely feature in the squad.”
Lennon is understandably preoccupied with the daunting challenge posed by Juventus and will leave several of his key players out of today’s lunchtime fixture away to Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
He insists the 15-point lead Celtic currently enjoy at the top of the SPL table is not the only reason he will take the opportunity to rest some of his leading performers.
“If the gap was three points, I would probably still do it and take the gamble,” he said. “It is a balancing act but I will make changes. I have got Juventus in mind. It is the biggest game we have had here since Gordon Strachan’s time and the biggest game of some of the players’ career, and certainly my managerial career.
“We have got a cushion but that is no guarantee you are going to win the league and it is not the reason I am making changes.”
Goalkeeper Fraser Forster, who has missed Celtic’s last five games because of a neck injury, is fit again and will play at Inverness in order to gain some match sharpness ahead of the Juventus tie.
Left-back Emilio Izaguirre, winger James Forrest and forward Georgios Samaras will all miss out because of injury with Lennon hopeful they will recover in time for Tuesday.
Gary Hooper, Celtic’s leading scorer, is among those likely to be metaphorically wrapped in cotton wool over the weekend. The striker will be watched by England manager Roy Hodgson on Tuesday night and Lennon is confident the possibility of a maiden international call-up with not prove a distraction. “Gary has had people watching him all season and he is aware of it,” said Lennon. “I think it did affect his game in the past but he is past that stage now.
“His whole focus is on beating Juventus and if he gets an England cap on the back of it, then that’s brilliant. Roy is coming to watch both Gary and Fraser Forster on Tuesday and it’s great recognition for the players. I really hope they play to the levels they can.”
Lennon also paid tribute yesterday to another of his international players, club captain Scott Brown who was given the honour of leading Scotland in Gordon Strachan’s first match in charge of the team on Wednesday night.
“It was great for Scott and I think he’s a great captain,” added Lennon. “He has coped with the pressure very well. You see a new body language with Scott now. There is definitely a more mature personality there, great leadership qualities and obviously Gordon agrees with that.”