Four games in 11 days that may define Celtic’s season

Leigh Griffiths in training at Lennoxtown as Celtic gear up for a busy period before the next international break. Picture: SNS.
Leigh Griffiths in training at Lennoxtown as Celtic gear up for a busy period before the next international break. Picture: SNS.
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As Celtic attempt to shake off their Champions League hangover, their forthcoming schedule of four games in 11 days has the capacity to either kill or cure.

Put simply, everything in the Parkhead garden could look pretty rosy once more if they emerge triumphantly from their two-legged Europa League play-off against AIK Stockholm and the Premiership fixtures against Hearts and Rangers.

“That’s a defining period,” admits Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths as he assesses the remaining games for the Scottish champions before the first international break of the season.

Should Celtic progress to the Europa League group stage and then leave Ibrox on 1 September clear of their Old Firm rivals at the top of the Premiership, then the current level of discord among their supporters will surely be soothed.

“It’s a huge couple of weeks for us,” added Griffiths. “Obviously, the play-offs against Stockholm are crucial and then we have Hearts at home and Rangers away in the league. If we can get through those four games by qualifying for the Europa League and taking full points from the Premiership fixtures then we’ll be in good spirits.

“The alternative definitely doesn’t bear thinking about – if you flip the coin then we could be out of Europe and beaten at Ibrox and things become even worse.”

Griffiths is confident Neil Lennon’s squad can respond positively to their Champions League exit at the hands of Cluj and go on to enjoy another dominant domestic campaign.

“It’s a test of character for us but the good thing about being at a club as big as this one is that you always have a chance to make amends quickly,” he said. “Okay, we won’t be in the 
biggest European competition but that’s gone and now we need to make a real statement about how good a team we are.

“We’ve been written off before. Last year we were eliminated from the Champions League by AEK Athens and we bounced back to win the treble. So people shouldn’t be writing us off this time either.”

The Europa League may lack both the cash and kudos provided by the Champions League but, as Griffiths is eager to point out, it can still bring some glitz and glamour in the group stage for Celtic and their support.

This season’s cast list of possible marquee opponents if Celtic qualify include the English duo of Manchester United and Arsenal, Italian giants Roma and Lazio, five-time Europa League winners Sevilla from Spain, and Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon.

“We can still have a good experience in the Europa League,” added Griffiths. “Look at last season – the group we were in had the makings of Champions League quality with Salzburg, Leipzig and Rosenborg.

“It was hard group which we managed to get through and then it was Valencia, one of the huge names in Spanish football, in the last 16 and I think the fans enjoyed that tie.

“Immediately after we lost to Cluj last Tuesday, the manager touched on the fact that when he was a player at Celtic, they were knocked out of the Champions League by Basel in the qualifiers but then went on to reach the final of the Uefa Cup, as the Europa League was called then, back in 2003.

“So, hopefully there is that silver lining in the cloud for us this season, in that if we do get through the play-off, and we can go on a decent run, then who knows where it can take us? But first and foremost we need to make sure we get there.

“That team back in 2003 had Henrik Larsson, Chris Sutton and John Hartson. There aren’t players like that kicking about anymore. So it’s time for us to make a name for ourselves.

“Whether it be myself or Odsonne Edouard, while guys like Scott Brown and James Forrest have reached the last 16 of the Champions League in the past. So we need to make a name for ourselves and make sure that we are remembered for doing something good in Europe with the club.”

While Griffiths will hope to be among the goals which Celtic will need to overcome AIK, he feels tightening up on the defensive vulnerability which proved so costly in the 4-3 defeat against Cluj is the priority.

“It is crucial you try to keep clean sheets in Europe and, if you can’t do that, then you have to at least minimise the chances for the opposition because you will get punished at that level,” he added. “It will be difficult. We need to turn up for both games against AIK, concentrate for the 90 minutes and get the job done.”