LEIGH GRIFFITHS insists Celtic will approach their Europa League opener against Ajax tomorrow without trepidation, despite their recent domestic and continental woes. The Scottish champions travel to Amsterdam this morning as they bid to re-ignite their season after a couple of high-profile setbacks.
Having been eliminated from the Champions League in the play-off round by Malmö, Ronny Deila’s side were toppled from the Scottish Premiership summit when they lost to Aberdeen at Pittodrie on Saturday.
I don’t think we feel under pressure, I think the players are looking forward to itLeigh Griffiths
It has sparked rumours of disharmony at Celtic, which was dismissed out of hand by Griffiths as he was named the Ladbrokes Premiership Player of the Month for August yesterday.
“No, definitely not,” said the 25-year-old striker whose own form has seldom been better with nine goals from as many starts so far this season.
Griffiths also insists he and his team-mates are not labouring under any sense of increased scrutiny as they prepare to face the Dutch League leaders.
“I don’t think we feel under pressure, I think the players are looking forward to it,” he said. “It’s an iconic stadium, the Amsterdam ArenA, it’s going to be packed and we have to go there and express ourselves and play football. If we do that, we have a good chance of winning. We spoke about Pittodrie after the game. We were disappointed the way we lost. But we came in this morning and had a look at Ajax on the video. We will be ready for Thursday when it comes along. It will be a tough game but we have the players who can get the three points for us.”
Celtic’s 4-3 aggregate defeat by Malmö last month was a bitter-sweet experience for Griffiths who produced his most impressive European performance so far for the club when he scored twice in their first leg win at Parkhead. Having failed to find the net in his first ten European appearances for Celtic, the Scotland international has scored three in five outings this season.
He is intent on adding to that tally in what appears a daunting Europa League group in which Celtic and Ajax are joined by Turkish League leaders Fenerbahce and Molde of Norway.
“I think it has the makings of a Champions League group, in everything but the name,” observed Griffiths.
“We are going to be up against some top players, going to some top stadiums, but we have to perform. It will be a good group, a competitive group, and hopefully we can progress.
“It has been massive for me to score in Europe this season. It was disappointing not to go through against Malmö, but it gave me a lot of confidence to get the nod ahead of Nadir Ciftci, who had started the previous European games, and score twice that night.
“If I’m playing on Thursday night, I’ll look to try and get another two but, to be honest, I don’t care who gets the goals as long as we come back to Glasgow with the points.
“The season has gone better than I could have hoped for so far. As well as getting my first European goals, I’ve got back into the Scotland squad. It’s not just about scoring goals, which is obviously what strikers thrive on, but it’s about playing well and I’ve been doing that.
“I probably wouldn’t recognise myself from where I was a year ago. But I can’t rest on my laurels from the last six months. I need to keep pushing myself forward, working hard and doing what I’ve been doing. That will make it hard for the manager to leave me out. I was at a crossroads in my career here when I wasn’t in the team at the start of last season. But I could understand why I wasn’t playing. I had to go away and work on aspects of my game. I did that and it’s why I am playing now. I’m a lot fitter than I was.
“I always thought I would make it at Celtic. All my life I’ve scored goals and I thought with the service I got here I would do that. I had to stay patient and wait for the manager to give me my chance. I did that and I think he knows now what I can do.”
Griffiths, meanwhile, is hopeful he will avoid a notice of complaint from the SFA over his criticism of referee Craig Thomson during the defeat at Pittodrie.
Immediately after the match, he inferred bias on Thomson’s part by claiming a Celtic player would have been sent off if he had committed the same foul as Andrew Considine’s penalty-conceding challenge on Griffiths which only earned a booking for the Aberdeen defender.
Griffiths then sought to clarify his remarks in a statement on the official Celtic website on Monday, insisting he would never question Thomson’s impartiality.
“I’m hoping that will be it, yeah,” said Griffiths. “But I’m not going to dwell on it too much, my focus is on Ajax on Thursday now. It’s up to them [the SFA] what they decide to do.
“That’s what I did in the statement, I cleared myself. I spoke about what I thought of Craig Thomson as a man and a referee. I see that Craig and Willie Collum have been appointed to Champions League games this week and you don’t get them if you’re a bad referee.”