Europe is more important than ever for Neil Lennon and Celtic
THERE are warnings and there are incentives. At the end of it all, Neil Lennon just hopes there is Champions League football.
It is two years since the Celtic manager last tried to engineer a way through to the group stages. A relatively new manager with a squad that remained a work in progress, there were not enough answers to the questions posed by Braga, and the team came up short. At the time, they took the stick. Now, against HJK Helsinki, he hopes the carrot will prove a better motivator.
The core of his squad has had time to work together since that disappointment, they have got to know each other and had time to realise just how big qualification for the Champions League would be for them, and the club.
“They know that it is a huge incentive,” said Lennon. “They made a progressive step by winning the title last year and the new test is to progress in Europe as well. I think that is the main motivation for this season.
“If we can progress, it will enhance the players’ own development, their own reputation and persona. I think to do that, European football is important. But these games come so rarely and it’s important that we get it right as quickly as we can. Otherwise it is gone just like that and you only have the domestic season to look forward to. We want both.”
Devoid of the usual challenges on the domestic front, it is more important than ever. In terms of finance and kudos, an extended stay among the European elite will make it easier to lure players to Parkhead. It may even help keep the individuals who may have their head turned by clubs with none of the SPL woes and a pre-ordained path into the group stages. It is also the difference between a fairly pedestrian plod to the title and something to keep the juices flowing.
“Players have shown enthusiasm to come regardless the situation, but the fact we have European football is a huge carrot and it has to be because the Rangers carrot isn’t there any more. We need the European carrot to entice people here,” admits the Celtic manager. “We have trimmed the wage bill and we have made significant cuts and five or six senior players have gone out the door who were earning good money and we haven’t added anyone yet. So, there is money available, but it’s about getting the right one in at the right time. If we can win this one then it would make the job of bringing new players in a bit easier. Financially if we get in the Champions League it will put the club on a sound footing for quite a while.”
The disappointment of Braga has heralded a new approach this time around. Learning lessons from the past two seasons, Lennon curtailed the pre-season globetrotting, basing his men closer to home, in Germany. He also made sure the ten days there were used to build on fitness levels and engineer match readiness in a way he hadn’t mustered before.
With tonight’s opponents HJK Helsinki already midway through their league season and the Glasgow side not due to begin their SPL campaign until Saturday, Lennon has had to try to minimise the advantage that should offer the Finnish side.
“We have worked really hard with them on the training ground and off the training ground. They know what we want from them now and hopefully they are ready.”
He is still waiting final fitness reports on Anthony Stokes and Kris Commons following Saturday’s friendly with Inter Milan, but says he is happy with the look of his players. Content with the preparations, he is aware, however, that the tie will still be a different level from anything they could manufacture in pre-season. “We have had a good look at Helsinki. We have had reports on them and feel if we can get a head of steam up them we can make it a difficult night for them. But this will be a totally different game from Ajax and Inter Milan. They will be very motivated. It won’t be a low tempo game. It’s going to be fiercely competitive and I think the game will be played with a lot of aggression.”
Lennon acknowledges that his players are shouldering an even greater responsibility than normal due to the current plight of the Scottish club game and says he would love to bring a smile back to faces. More importantly, he wants to see his squad do themselves justice, claiming they would remain unfulfilled as Celtic players if they couldn’t sample the Champions League.
“It’s hard to rate it, but it is hugely important in terms of our development, as players and for me as a coach and the backroom team as well. It’s something we all really want and we have looked into factors and why it maybe hasn’t worked for us in previous years and we have tried to get everything right. But even the best laid plans can go to waste on one night, so we just have to trust the players now.
“The club have come through a few qualifiers in the past, but have failed in a few as well, even in my time as a player, so I know that it’s a long season without European football. We have tried to get that message across to the players.
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