CELTIC manager Neil Lennon last night savoured what he described as a “perfect” return home on Champions League duty but expressed a desire to strengthen his squad before the next phase of the tournament.
The Scottish champions comfortably defeated Cliftonville 3-0 in the first leg of their second qualifying round tie at Solitude with goals from Mikael Lustig, Georgios Samaras and James Forrest.
With a place in the third qualifying round all but sewn up before the Irish League part-timers visit Glasgow next Tuesday, Lennon is already planning for the more daunting assignments which Celtic face on their projected path to the lucrative group stage.
As striker Gary Hooper closes in on a £5.2 million move to QPR in the wake of Victor Wanyama’s record £12.5m sale to Southampton last week, Lennon is keen to secure at least one replacement within the next week.
“We are actively looking to strengthen the squad,” Lennon said. “Maybe some of that will hinge upon the Hooper situation as well. But there is obviously some money available from the Wanyama transfer. So are working pretty hard in the background. A lot of my time has been taken up by this game but I now get a few days to assess all our options.
“There’s no update on Hooper. Talks are still ongoing between Gary and his representatives but no bid has been accepted by us yet.
“I’d like to get one new player in for the game next week and bed him in as quickly as possible. If we can get him in then, he at least gets a couple of games to bed himself in before the next qualifying round.
“I’ve got to be honest and say we are not close to anything. We’ve made a couple of enquiries but we have made any inroads yet.”
Lennon could hardly have been more content with the outcome of last night’s match, both from a professional and personal perspective.
“It was just what I wanted, it was a perfect evening,” he said. “There was a real sense of occasion going into the game and I wanted a good performance. I got that because the attitude was right. There was a lot of negativity going into the game on the back of our pre-season results in Germany but I’m delighted because we showed a lot of quality. Cliftonville caught us on a good night. I was only concerned with us and I was pleased with some of our performances – a few of the players looked more like themselves.
“Scott Brown has only had 55 minutes of football in pre-season but he was very good tonight. He covered the ground well, passed it very well. He tired a bit towards the end which is understandable but it’s great to see him in that sort of shape.
“Beram Kayal had a great game as well and Forrest was always a threat, we had a lot of excellent displays. Efe Ambrose only joined the squad on Monday but came through it no problem. It’s been a balancing act and, hopefully, we’ll get a few more fit after tonight. I think we’ve got a clean bill of health which is really important. We’ve got a friendly game at Brentford on Saturday so I’ll probably rest the majority who played against Cliftonville.
“Regardless of the stage of the season, tonight had ‘potential banana skin’ written all over it. The fact it was so early in our preparations made it even more so. I was also worried about the personal side of it, bringing the team home for the first time which was a great privilege for me. I was just delighted with the way everything went.
“I was delighted with the occasion, the atmosphere and, obviously, our performance. It gives us a bit of breathing space for the second leg. That’s all we can ask for really.
“It was a bit of a surreal atmosphere. A bit of carnival atmosphere as well. The important thing was that the players took a step away from that and tried to be as professional as they could. I thought we played well. We hit the woodwork three times as well. It’s not easy. These are awkward games. We are not even in the season yet. Some of the guys haven’t even had 90 minutes yet so to come through it and play as well as that, I really couldn’t have asked any more of them.”
Cliftonville manager Tommy Breslin admitted his team had been outclassed and has no illusions about making a miraculous comeback in the tie at Celtic Park next week.
“I’ve just asked what happens if we don’t turn up and it would be a 2-0 defeat which I’d take,” smiled Breslin. “Seriously, I’ve no complaints about the result. Celtic are a class act. It was a great occasion for our club and there were a lot of positives for us.”
A feature of the night was Celtic captain Brown’s running battle with tenacious Cliftonville midfielder Barry Johnston, providing the Scotland international with a valuable first full appearance since last season’s Scottish Cup Final.
“I sought him out afterwards to give him my shirt because he was giving me a bit of chat all through the game,” said Brown. “He was snapping around my heels every two seconds. But it’s fine, it’s good to have a wee bit of competition like that in the midfield. I certainly give it out so I expect to get it in return as well so I thought I would give him my shirt at the end.
“I was delighted to get my first 90 minutes since the cup final under my belt. It’s been a long time so it was great to come through unscathed.
“I feel fine, I’m quite pleased and I’m definitely going to feel the benefits of playing tonight.
“The more matches I get the fitter and more confident I become.
“The last ten minutes or so I started to sit back a little more but that will come eventually.”