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Lennon: Celtic still have Champions League chance

Celtic's Steven Mouyokolo looks on at the end of his side's 2-0 loss in Astana. Picture: SNS

Celtic's Steven Mouyokolo looks on at the end of his side's 2-0 loss in Astana. Picture: SNS

  • by RONNIE ESPLIN AND CRAIG FORBES
 

NEIL Lennon refused to write off Celtic’s chances of booking a place in the Champions League group stage despite last night’s potentially damaging 2-0 defeat by Shakhter Karagandy.

• Match report: Long ball undoes fragile Hoops defence

Goals from Andrei Finonchenko and Sergei Khizhnichenko handed the Kazakhstan champions a first-leg advantage in the play-off tie on a torrid night for Celtic.

Both goals were defended poorly and leave the Scottish champions facing an uphill battle to overhaul the deficit with a £15million windfall at stake for the eventual victors.

That is the minimal reward for reaching the group phase of Uefa’s blue riband competition alongside the elite teams of Europe.

However, Lennon has faith in his players to salvage the tie in next week’s second leg in Glasgow.

He told BBC Radio Scotland: “It’s a disappointing result. We should have scored and that would have put a different complexion on the tie. It’s not over yet. We’ve got to go back to Celtic Park.

“There is plenty for me to chew on in terms of chances but Shakhter didn’t surprise us with the way they played.

“We knew they would throw balls forward and we should have dealt with the first one a lot better.

“I don’t know how many chances we had tonight – clear-cut ones as well – but if you don’t take your chances you make life difficult for yourself. I’m not down and out just yet.”

Midfielder Joe Ledley echoed his manager’s sentiments. Asked why he was confident of turning the tie around, the Wales midfielder said: “We should have scored six goals easy, that’s why.

“To be fair to them, their keeper was on fire but we dominated possession and had more chances but lost sloppy goals.

“It is definitely frustrating, we dominated them away from home and two sloppy goals killed the game.

“Away from home you need to keep the door shut and it just wasn’t good enough. But we believe we can score against them.”

Lennon admitted improvement in terms of some of the individual displays will be necessary at Celtic Park.

He selected a previously untried central defensive pairing of Steven Mouyokolo and Virgil van Dijk for the match in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana and watched them concede two tame goals amid a hostile atmosphere to leave his team teetering on the brink.

Lennon continued: “There are a few players who will be disappointed with their performances tonight. They’ve got to get better very quickly.”

With Mouyokolo and Van Dijk both handed their European debuts, the more experienced Efe Ambrose was named on the substitutes’ bench. Lennon explained: “Efe has been in South Africa, Aberdeen and now another flight to Kazakhstan.

“I wanted the extra height to cope with the aerial bombardment that we were going to get.

“In the main, we dealt with it okay. We just switched off at one throw-in. I didn’t really feel uncomfortable in the game at all. I thought we would score.

“But the fact that we didn’t just makes it that little bit more difficult now.”

Asked if selling key players such as Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and Kelvin Wilson contributed to the result, Lennon said: “Possibly. I still think we’ve got enough in the squad to come through the tie so that’s what we will endeavour to do.”

 

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