CELTIC look certain to be some way short of full strength for Saturday’s lunchtime date with Aberdeen and manager Neil Lennon holds the midweek England-Scotland international to blame.
Scott Brown, so impressive in the Scotland engine room at Wembley, is unlikely to be risked for the Pittodrie match with a Champions League play-off in distant Kazakhstan taking place barely 80 hours later, with James Forrest also nursing a knock from that game.
Celtic’s trip to play Shakhter Karagandy looms large over the Aberdeen game, despite Lennon’s insistence that he “doesn’t want to get into the bad habits of last season” and let Europe disrupt domestic responsibilities early in the campaign.
But Lennon cringed when he saw Brown and Forrest limp back in after a dramatic night in London – they are on a list of nine players facing fitness tests today, with Darnel Fisher definitely out. The manager, however, confirmed that all of the players nursing knocks should be fit to play in Kazakhstan.
“It was a disaster for us in terms of the games we have,” he said of the first renewal of football’s oldest international rivalry in 14 years. “We’ve got a 12.30pm kick-off against one of our biggest rivals and then a huge game on Tuesday halfway across Europe. But it is the same every season, when it seems you have these international friendlies before some of the associations have even kicked a ball in anger.”
Lennon was not the only SPFL manager affected by the midweek internationals and acknowledged he has good depth in his squad to fall back on. And the importance of Tuesday was bound to lead to him making the most of his resources in the north-east. “It’s just trying to fit the three games into six days with the Wednesday, Saturday then Tuesday,” he said. “We’ve just got to be careful of that as it’s still very early in the season and some of them still aren’t at full fitness yet.
“I’m limited to what I can start and pick from, although we’ll still have a strong enough team. [Georgios] Samaras is fresh, [Kris] Commons is fresh, so we’ve still got a good core of players to pick from. We’re going to Pittodrie wanting to win the game. I certainly don’t want to lose the game and get into the habit of what we did last season. I don’t want to come away from Aberdeen being six points behind them. So it’s imperative that we perform well.”
Celtic embark on the seven-hour flight to Kazakhstan from Dyce Airport this evening and will make their players as comfortable as possible after chartering a Boeing 757 fitted exclusively for business-class passengers.
Any player nursing an injury or stiffness from Pittodrie will be able to wear anti-compression tights and training will only be “very light” tomorrow and on Monday as Celtic head into another Champions League game with millions of pounds at stake.
Lennon hopes that by the time his players take to the pitch against Shakhter, he will have added to his squad.
Schalke are playing hardball over the mooted sale of Finnish striker Teemu Pukki, but Lennon is determined to resist any advances for Fraser Forster after the English goalkeeper was linked with Benfica.
“That’s a rumour that’s spread in the last few days; I don’t know if they’re trying to unsettle the player,” the manager said of Forster. “There has been no concrete enquiry for him.
“He’s not for sale. There’s no way I’d let him go. It doesn’t surprise me but he’s not for sale. You all know about Pukki. We have put a bid in. Schalke have said they’re not willing to sell. But these are the barriers you come up against now and again.
“We’re working very hard to bring players in. We do like him, we think he’s a very intelligent player who can make us better. We’re still negotiating. He’s similar to Gary [Hooper].
“He’s got that stocky build, he’s maybe not as physical as Gary but his movement is excellent and so is his first touch. He’s a good finisher. I think he’ll suit our style of play.”