Celtic’s Neil Lennon remains wary of ‘cagey’ Cluj

Scott Brown in training at Lennoxtown yesterday. Picture: SNS.
Scott Brown in training at Lennoxtown yesterday. Picture: SNS.
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It only requires a brief scan of Celtic’s long European history to appreciate that the promising situation they find themselves in tonight can quickly become one of vulnerability.

The Scottish champions are heavy odds-on favourites to overcome Cluj in the second leg of the Champions League third qualifying round tie at Celtic Park after securing a more than acceptable 1-1 draw in Romania last week.

But while it is a scoreline which offers Neil Lennon’s squad the ideal platform to complete the job and book a play-off round showdown with Slavia Prague, it also carries the potential for a fraught and nervy evening in the east end of Glasgow.

On three of the previous occasions when Celtic have drawn 1-1 in the first leg of a European knockout tie away from home, they have subsequently been stung in the return on their own patch.

They lost 2-1 at home to Atletico Madrid and Bordeaux respectively in 1985 and 2000, when the hard work seemed to have been done on the road, with their most recent disappointment in those circumstances coming five years ago when a 1-1 draw in Slovenia against Maribor was followed by a 1-0 defeat at Celtic Park in the Champions League play-off round.

On the back of their free-scoring start to the season, Celtic have every reason to believe they will not add to that unhappy list tonight. But manager Lennon remains mindful of the threat Cluj could still pose if his players are not as resolute in defence as they have been prolific up front.

“I’m very wary of people thinking the tie is over,” said Lennon. “Cluj scored twice away from home against Maccabi Tel Aviv in the previous round, which isn’t an easy thing to do. They can score goals wherever they play.

“They rested most of their first- choice first team for their league match at the weekend, so there will be a freshness to them. Winning this tie means a lot to them, as it does to us. Obviously at Celtic Park, we are looking to strike home that advantage.

“I expect Cluj’s approach to be cagey. They might play a little bit deeper than they did at home, they might look to counter-attack us and feed off set plays as well.

“Will they be physical? I didn’t think they were over-physical in the first leg. There was one bad challenge on Scott Brown which warranted more than a yellow card. The game is physical, but if it gets over-physical then you expect the referee to deal with that.

“As a team, we are in a good place right now. Again, it can flip very quickly, so we take nothing for granted, but we’re delighted with the way we’ve played and the goals we have scored. We look a threat and we’re making good chances, so we look to do the same again but we’re mindful of keeping a clean sheet.

“It’s a balancing act. The goals give you confidence but you can’t be over-confident. There was enough in the game in Romania for me to think we can score and hurt them when we get the ball into certain areas. That gives me a lot of encouragement going into this game. However, we look like we can concede too, but the onus is on us to take the game to them as much as we can.”

Celtic have scored 25 goals in seven competitive fixtures so far this season, that impressive tally contributed to by no less than ten different players. It’s an indication of Lennon putting his own tactical stamp on the team after initially performing what was in many ways a baby-sitting role when he inherited Brendan Rodgers’ side on an interim basis in February.

“We just try to get the ball into forward areas a little bit quicker, shoot more and shoot quicker,” he said. “Sometimes we were looking for the perfect goal but every goal is perfect in its own way. We’re getting that from Ryan Christie, James Forrest is pitching in and Callum [McGregor] has got a couple already.

“The strikers are both in good form. We don’t take what Leigh Griffiths does for granted because it’s a natural talent that he has, plus Odsonne Edouard has been in fantastic form in the last couple of games.

“We’re just trying to keep them bubbling along and we know the significance of this game.”

Hatem Abd Elhamed is fit again and likely to return at right-back for Celtic tonight, allowing Kristoffer Ajer and Jozo Simunovic to resume their central defensive partnership. If the back four perform effectively, Celtic captain Scott Brown has no doubts the front five will hurt Cluj at the other end of the pitch.

“We are looking a threat all the time,” said Brown. “We are going to score goals and create chances.

“It is just about when we are going to take them. If we squeeze the game like we do it is hard for teams to get in behind us with the pace we have at the back and all over the park.

“The manager tells us that even if we go 1-0 down, like we did in the first leg last week, we don’t need to worry.

“We have the players 
who can create and score goals.”