LAST season’s memorable Champions League campaign afforded Neil Lennon plenty of opportunities to shower his players with praise.
Two of them, he now reflects, he spoke about in more glowing terms and more often than most.
Both men – Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper – are no longer around as Celtic bid to reach the group stage of Europe’s elite club tournament for the second successive year.
Celtic are around £17 million better off for the summer sales of Wanyama and Hooper to Southampton and Norwich City respectively, but many observers believe they will also be significantly weakened on the pitch.
Lennon, however, takes a different and more practical view. Ahead of the first leg of the third qualifying round tie against Swedish champions Elfsborg at Celtic Park tonight, the manager has challenged his squad to ensure they are the subject of his post-match accolades in the weeks and months ahead.
He believes some of his players may have secretly resented the extent of the plaudits heaped on Wanyama and Hooper last season, so has urged them to prove they were not overly reliant on their now departed colleagues.
“I know we have lost two very big players but I’ve thrown the mantle to the other ones now,” said Lennon.
“I’ve said ‘Can we succeed without those two, or did we need to rely on them to get us through’? You really question their own professional pride now, hoping they come to the fore with that.
“There were two players I talked about quite a lot after games and sometimes that can irk other players, if you know what I mean.
“Maybe the ones who are irked about it will think ‘It’s time to come to the fore’ and have me waxing lyrical about them after games. That’s the challenge for them.
“You lose two very good players, fine, but it shouldn’t be a major concern. We shouldn’t have to rely on two players to qualify for the group stages. I still have a core of quality, quality players who I really trust. I have addressed the players individually when I’ve said this in front of the group.
“I’m not going to name names of whom I picked out, but, for some of them, this is a challenge and it’s up to them to show they can take it.
“That’s the motivation for them, not just to get to the Champions League, but to take us to the Champions League. Be the main player, be our main player. That’s what they should be thinking now.”
While he did not specify individuals, one of those Lennon will hope can step up to the plate is Anthony Stokes. The Irish striker has often been a peripheral figure on the big stage for Celtic but will now be given the chance to step out of Hooper’s shadow.
“Anthony will probably tell you he hasn’t had the opportunity to score goals at Champions League level,” added Lennon. “He will get that now.
“He played really well for us against Rennes in the Europa League two seasons ago, he just needs to be more consistent. He’s got the talent, we all know that. You saw his performance in the Scottish Cup final at the end of last season, it was great. If he plays like that eight times out of ten, then he has got a lot of goals in him.”
One player who has nothing to prove to Lennon or anyone else at Champions League level is Georgios Samaras. The Greek forward was pivotal to Celtic’s success last season and his manager expects more of the same.
“His reputation in Europe has really grown in the last 18 months,” observed Lennon. “Certainly, he is a big-game player and he loves the responsibility now. He’s turned his career full circle here, it’s just been brilliant to watch. He’s gone from being a target of the boo-boys to being the supporters’ Player of the Year and that takes an enormous amount of self-belief, an enormous amount of character.
“A lot of other players would have gone ‘You know what, I’m not putting up with this, I’m going to go’. But he stuck at it, we gave him the opportunity and he took it. He works at his game, he works on different weaknesses and he’s turned into a really top-class player now.
“I knew he had the talent. Consistency was the key and he’s been far more consistent over the past 18 months than he was in the previous 18 months. When you’re 6ft 4in and can run like the wind, have good feet and can head it, they are all the attributes you want to be a really good player.
“He’s turned into a leader as well, whereas before he may have shied away from that. He’s a very quiet boy off the field but, certainly in the dressing room now, he’s got great respect from the rest of the players and the backroom staff as well.”
Lennon is wary of the threat posed by an Elfsborg side midway through their domestic season, but feels more relaxed about Celtic’s prospects of negotiating the qualifying rounds of the Champions League than he did 12 months ago.
“I’m not too bad this year,” he observed. “I say that now, right enough, but I’ll probably be a bag of nerves by kick-off! But I believe we have enough quality to cause Elfsborg plenty of problems, particularly at home. I’m also more confident about the second leg, because of how our away form has improved in the last year or two.
“They are really tricky games. Having watched Elfsborg at the weekend, they are a good side. They are 17 games into their season so that’s a huge advantage they have over us.
“But I believe we have enough quality to cause them plenty of problems, particularly at home. Away from home I’m also more confident than I was two years ago because of our performances.
“There is good belief about this squad. I’d be disappointed if we didn’t make it through.”