Celtic striker Albian Ajeti backs Neil Lennon’s Champions League team selection

Swiss forward admits lack of match fitness prevented him from starting defeat to Ferencvaros

DUNDEE, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 22: Celtic's Albian Ajeti in action during the Scottish Premiership match between Dundee Utd and Celtic at Tannadice, on August 22, 2020, in Dundee, Scotland. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

Between players reputed to want away, and players that supporters want to play, the fallout from Celtic’s Champions League qualifying flop to Ferencvaros has been thermo-nuclear. Neil Lennon’s decision to play without a recognised striker as he listed two such players as substitutes will not be the cause of any fallout with the Celtic manager from Albian Ajeti, one of the front men who started on the bench.

As easy as it was to lash Lennon for picking Ryan Chrisite ahead of Patryk Klimala and Ajeti, the latter not only endorses his manager’s judgment call but believes it was the only one to make.

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In assessing why, without the injured Odsonne Edouard, Lennon chose to turn to the club’s top scorer in Europe last season ahead of his remaining fit strikers, few seemed to consider where the benched forward pair find themselves at this point in their careers.

Ajeti knows precisely, though. The Swiss international was on holiday ahead of pitching up in Glasgow only a fortnight ago to agree a deal that will net former club West Ham United £4.5 million. His lost season in east London means he hasn’t started a game since January.

“Absolutely” was the 23-year-old’s response when asked if he accepted Lennon’s decision to bench him. “I had made maybe eight to ten trainings since I came and I didn’t play that much last season so I have to get back fit. With my last starting game coming in January, it has been a really, really long time. I didn’t have the proper pre-season with Celtic so I’m trying to train hard to get as fit as possible. Ultimately I need to get back to it and push myself to be ready to play 90 minutes again, so with the Celtic staff I’m training really hard. Every day I’m going to the limit to try and help my team as soon as possible.”

It is both the team and his manager that Ajeti is desperate to assist. He already has done so in scoring the late goal that supplied him a first strike in Scotland and a crucial victory away to Dundee United.

A number of players may not be best pleased with Lennon after he lashed unnamed individuals for questionable commitment in the wake of their shock 2-1 loss to the Hungarian champions. However, Ajeti – who cyrptically stated that the “discussion” the players had in the dressing room the other night “will stay in the team” – continues to appreciate his manager for his way of building players up, not knocking them down – a requirement as they face a must-win Premiership encounter at home to Motherwell this afternoon.

“[I like him] because of the way he gives me the confidence – I can just give it back by playing well and doing my best to try to help him as the gaffer has helped me during my hard time. It needs to work for both of us,” said the striker, who has been named in the Swiss squad for their Nations League openers in Ukraine and at home to Germany in the next eight days.

“The main reason I like him is his honesty, he’s straightforward in the way he treats players. I am just a few weeks here but I have been made very welcome and he’s been a player as well, so he knows what’s going on in the dressing-room and how the players are after training or game. It makes it much easier, for example, for me to adapt myself to the team and get a good relationship with the gaffer.”

Ajeti sees the period following the international break as the time to make a real impact at his new club. An impact his former Basel team-mate and now Celtic colleague Mohamed Elyounoussi believes can be prodigious with the winger claiming that once he starts scoring in Scotland he won’t stop.

“That’s what I hope,” Ajeti said. “First of all I have to get as fit as I was before and that is why I am actually looking at the moment to get as fit as possible.

“I’m happy to have already scored my first goal and helped the team and I think there will be many more goals and much more fun in the future when I am fitter.”

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