CELTIC stand-in skipper Beram Kayal believes the Parkhead club are ready to leave their early season woes firmly behind them by going on to win the domestic treble and vindicate his assertion that they are superior to Rangers.
The Israeli international midfielder was in bullish mood ahead of tonight’s pivotal Europa League Group I fixture against Atletico Madrid at Celtic Park, which he and his team-mates approach on the back of a five-match winning run that has re-energised their campaign.
Kayal’s comments underlined the fresh confidence in the Celtic squad following the sequence of victories which has put them in contention to reach the last 32 of the Europa League and also seen Rangers’ lead over them at the top of the SPL table slashed from 12 to four points.
In a thinly-veiled swipe at their Old Firm rivals, Kayal also insisted Celtic were the most accomplished team in Scotland last season, despite missing out on the championship to the Ibrox men by a point. The 23-year-old is hugely optimistic that there will be no repeat of that disappointment this time around, revealing that Neil Lennon’s men have their sights firmly fixed on a clean sweep of the domestic trophies as well as an extended run in the Europa League.
“Last season we played the best football in the country and we showed that to everyone,” said Kayal. “It has taken time to come together this season, but the gaffer is now doing that very well. We looked to win the league last season but didn’t do it. I hope this season everyone can do their best to win everything in this country and do well in Europe. For this moment, we are coming back to the right way.
“I am sure we can play the best football again this season, because we have the best squad and the best players in this country. We haven’t played like we did last season, but we are now getting there.
“We have power in the team and the confidence has come back for everyone. This is a good moment to start playing well for the rest of the season. Over the last month, everything has come together. Everyone has worked hard and tried to do the maximum. Everyone feels much better, but we need to continue, not just to do it for one month. At the start of the season, we drew and lost a lot of games. At Celtic you need to win every game.”
Celtic are two points behind Atletico Madrid and Udinese in their Europa League group, with bottom-placed Rennes a further three points adrift. Victory tonight appears imperative if Celtic are to go into their final fixture, away to Udinese on 15 December, with the knockout stage within their grasp.
“I think we need four points from the last two games to qualify,” added Kayal. “But this is a good moment for the team. We have played well in the last five or six games and we need to continue that in Europe as well as the league.
“Atletico are a big club and a good team and we need to continue with our good run to beat them. We played well in our last European game here against Rennes, when we beat them 3-1, and we need to do the same job in this one. When we play at Celtic Park the fans give everybody energy and power. We know Atletico are a big team in Europe with a lot of world-class players, but we want to beat them to have a chance of continuing in Europe this season.
“When we lost 2-0 to Atletico in Madrid back in September at the start of the group, a lot of our players were experiencing European football for the first time. Now we have a stronger mentality.”
Kayal is preparing to hand the captain’s armband back to Scott Brown soon with the Scotland midfielder now back in full training following his recovery from ankle surgery. Brown’s long-term future at Celtic remains uncertain. His current contract expires at the end of this season and no agreement has yet been reached on a new deal.
“Scott is the captain of the team and is an important player,” said Kayal. “If he comes back into the team, he will give us more energy and help us to play well. He is a big player, a good man and a good friend but I don’t want to speak about his contract. I don’t know what the future will bring.”
Brown is unlikely to be pressed into action tonight with his return more likely to come against Dundee United at Tannadice on Sunday. Celtic have no fresh injury concerns for tonight, with defender Kelvin Wilson available for selection for the first time since September.