NEIL Lennon has warned his players he will not tolerate substandard domestic performances in advance of Champions League fixtures this season.
Celtic begin their star-studded Group H campaign in Uefa’s elite tournament with a trip to face AC Milan in Italy on Wednesday night, with equally glamorous assignments against Barcelona and Ajax to follow.
But Lennon is demanding a fully focused approach from the Scottish champions when they face Hearts at Tynecastle in today’s lunchtime Premiership match.
At the same stage of last season, Celtic lost 2-1 to St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park immediately before they played their Champions League group stage opener against Benfica. In total, Celtic dropped seven points in domestic league games which took place before European ties.
If there is any repeat of that inconsistency, Lennon says some players could find themselves missing out at the San Siro as a consequence.
“Last season, I got the feeling that maybe some of the players were saving themselves for the Champions League games,” said Lennon. “I’ve made it pretty clear that, if I detect that this year, then there is a distinct possibility they won’t play in the Champions League.
“Now, I’m not giving ultimatums out. I just think it’s important they play at full steam in the domestic league games. They have got plenty of time to recover – Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. We won’t do a lot of training in between. I don’t want to leave any players out at Tynecastle. We should have enough recovery time between Saturday and Wednesday in Milan. I am looking to go with a strong team against Hearts.
“We have only had the players for one day to prepare after the international break. We left in really good spirits before it, so the two week break came at the wrong time for us. It usually does, anyway.
“Injury wise, James Forrest won’t be fit and Steven Mouyokolo is out for six months. Apart from that, we seem to be okay. But I don’t know what condition the majority of them are in after the exertions they have had.
“I don’t want to drop any points, I don’t want to lose any games in the league. I want to go into Milan with our confidence up after a decent performance at Tynecastle. It’s a great game for us to have now.”
Lennon anticipates a difficult afternoon against a youthful Hearts side and expressed his admiration of Gary Locke’s work so far in addressing the 15-point deduction imposed on the club for entering administration.
“It’s very impressive,” said Lennon. “Gary is a Hearts man who ‘gets’ the club and I think he’s got the players playing for him.
“Maybe it might be a blessing in disguise, getting the young boys blooded and getting them great experience. But they are playing for him and for each other.
“In each game they’ve played, they’ve been competitive. I think that’s all Gary could have asked of them and already they’ve eaten into the deficit and we’re only four or five games into the season. Clubs just ahead of Hearts will be looking over their shoulders.”
Finnish international striker Teemu Pukki, signed from Schalke 04 on transfer window deadline day, is in contention to make his Celtic debut against Hearts. But fellow newcomer Nir Biton will miss out. The work permit paperwork on the Israeli international midfielder’s move from FC Ashdod has yet to be completed, but Lennon expects him to meet up with the squad in Milan on Tuesday.
Lennon faces a hectic schedule today. Along with his assistants Johan Mjallby and Garry Parker, he will make a sharp exit from Tynecastle after the match to board a private jet which will take them to Turin where he will watch AC Milan in Serie A action against Torino this evening. “It’s important that you go and watch them live,” he said. “You have to be able to see how they set up defensively and what they are like on the counter-attack. You look at how the forward players interact with each other.”
During the international break, Lennon furthered his own knowledge and experience when he attended the annual Uefa Elite Club Coaches Forum in Nyon. It was chaired via video conference by Sir Alex Ferguson and Lennon was relieved to attend as a manager whose club had once again made it to the group stage of the Champions League.
“I’d have been turning up with a red face if we’d gone out to perceived lesser opposition in Shakhter Karagandy,” admitted Lennon. “It meant so much to go there knowing we are in the Champions League. It was excellent. There was talk about the Champions League, its format, financial fair play, refereeing – which I was very interested in. It was a fantastic experience for me. There was a live link to Sir Alex as well from Old Trafford. He still has a huge influence on things.
“I think Uefa president Michel Platini has introduced this as he’s a football man and wants to help managers along the way. If there’s anything the managers feel needs changing he will try to push that through.
“You turn up and are sitting at dinner with Rafa Benitez, Antonio Conte and Andre Villas-Boas. It was very, very cordial and just a great experience. I found Benitez to be a very affable guy which is probably different from his public persona. He was very, very good with me.
“Arsene Wenger was also very interesting to listen to, as were two of the guys from eastern Europe – Mircea Lucescu of Shakhtar Donetsk and Kurban Berdyev of Rubin Kazan. It was interesting to hear everyone else’s perspective on things. Going there as a Champions League manager just gives you a little bit more gravitas.”