CELTIC manager Neil Lennon has criticised the timing of this week’s international challenge matches as he grows increasingly anxious over the health of his squad ahead of their Champions League last 16 first leg showdown with Juventus in eight days’ time.
Lennon emerged satisfied from Celtic’s 3-0 Scottish Cup fifth round victory over Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park yesterday which helped to ease the disappointment of his team’s League Cup semi-final elimination by St Mirren the previous weekend. Ironically, Celtic’s reward is another crack at St Mirren in the quarter-finals.
They were drawn away to the Paisley side when the draw was made after Hibernian’s 1-0 win against Aberdeen at Easter Road.
In the quarter-finals, Dundee – 5-1 winners over Morton yesterday – will take on city rivals Dundee United at Dens Park, Hibernian will travel to Kilmarnock, and Hamiltion Academical will host their fellow First Division survivors Falkirk.
Celtic remain on course for a league and cup double, but Lennon believes his side’s domestic duties are being completely overshadowed by the considerable distraction of the momentous European assignment against the Italian champions.
As a raft of his players head off to join up with their countries for friendly internationals this week, Lennon is worried over additional injury problems as he already sweats on the fitness of goalkeeper Fraser Forster, full-back Emilio Izaguirre and striker Georgios Samaras who were all absent again in Kirkcaldy.
“Of all the weeks to have international matches, I don’t know who decides to have it now, just a few days before the Champions League,” said Lennon. “We have got the biggest game our club has had for four or five years on Tuesday week, but we have a load of players away all over the world this week. It is a concern.
“Ever since we came back from the winter break, we have been looking at the Juventus game looming on the horizon. We have tried to keep the squad as healthy as we possibly can. Fraser should be able to play at Inverness next weekend. He could have gone away with England this week, but we felt it would be better for him to get a good week’s work under his belt with us before the Juventus game.
“Emilio is just ahead of Georgios at the minute. We will be aggressive with their rehabilitation and give them every chance. But I will use the squad against Inverness next week, to try and keep the big player as dynamic as possible for Juventus.”
There are four Celtic players in the Scotland squad for Gordon Strachan’s first match as manager against Estonia at Pittodrie on Wednesday night. Ironically, Lennon feels he may actually benefit from the inclusion of winger James Forrest in Strachan’s plans after the youngster returned from injury as a substitute yesterday to score Celtic’s second goal against Raith.
“To be fair, James could maybe do with more game time which he might get for Scotland,” added Lennon. “I’ve spoken to Gordon, he is in total charge of that and he understands our situation.
“James is a brilliant player, you can see what he brings to us. He is dying to play but we have had to drip-feed him in gently to make sure there is no reaction to the injury.
“The physios have been holding him back and we have to listen to them. He got some game time today and will maybe get some more with Scotland. He is a wonderful talent and one of the best Scottish players produced for a long time.”