Neil Lennon: ‘Early European start harsh on Celtic’

CELTIC manager Neil Lennon has called on Uefa to reassess their regulations which leave the Scottish champions standing over a European trapdoor tonight.

The Celtic squad prepare for their Champions League qualifier against Cliftonville. Picture: SNS
The Celtic squad prepare for their Champions League qualifier against Cliftonville. Picture: SNS

Just four months after mixing it with the Champions League elite, Celtic find themselves facing a second qualifying round tie against Cliftonville in Northern Ireland.

Ahead of tonight’s first leg in Belfast, Lennon admits he is concerned at the prospect of Celtic slipping up at a stage of the tournament which offers no parachute into the Europa League for the losers. On the past two occasions Scottish clubs have had to enter the Champions League in this round, calamity has struck. Lennon was part of the Celtic side shocked by Slovakian side Artmedia Bratislava in 2005, then Rangers were eliminated by Kaunas in Lithuania three years later.

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Scotland’s crumbling Uefa co-efficient ranking, which determines which stage of the competition clubs begin their campaign, has left Celtic with three qualifying ties to negotiate this season if they are to repeat last year’s achievement of making it to the lucrative and prestigious group phase.

Gary Hooper: Targeted by QPR. Picture: PA

Lennon believes Uefa should consider amending their rules to accommodate any team which reaches the last 16 of the Champions League, as his squad did last season. “I think it has to be looked at,” said Lennon. “I don’t think it’s fair, considering the season we had and the amount of games we played. To come back into it so early, we could be out of Europe altogether by next week.

“I think that is very, very harsh. I suppose they are the rules, the reality of it and you have to accept it, but baffling is a good word to use about it. I just think it’s really harsh to have to play an extra qualifier after reaching the last 16.

“We are the champions of our country, we reached the last 16 of the Champions League last season. Surely there should be some sort of dispensation for clubs who do well the previous season?

“Maybe it’s just me being selfish but I think it’s very, very harsh on us to be playing so early. I’m not going to be critical of other Scottish clubs and the co-efficient.

“I just don’t think it’s right that we’re playing a very important competitive game two weeks into our pre-season.”

Lennon’s sense of unease about tonight’s match at Cliftonville’s tiny Solitude ground has not been eased by an injury-disrupted preparation. Adam Matthews, Charlie Mulgrew, Virgil van Dijk, Joe Ledley and Gary Hooper were all not fit enough to make the short hop across the Irish Sea yesterday.

Hooper’s absence could be permanent, the striker the subject of increased transfer interest from QPR, who are rivalling Norwich City for his signature.

“The deal might fall through but in my mind I’m resigned to losing him,” said Lennon. “If the valuation is met and negotiations are agreed then I assume it will be done sooner rather than later.”

Following on from the record £12.5 million sale of midfielder Victor Wanyama to Southampton, it leaves Lennon urgently seeking suitable replacements if Celtic are to make another credible tilt at Champions League success.

“We have identified some players and we are trying to push the button on a couple,” he said. “It just depends on the agents I suppose. I’m not going to give any names away but we are looking seriously at the striker position now.

“We felt that if the team got a decent run going in Europe last year, you never know where it could take us. We are hoping for more this season, although we are losing two of our better players. If we get through this tie, then we’ll see if we can add to the squad in terms of quality.”

An unexpected member of the Celtic travelling party was defender Efe Ambrose, just 24 hours after his return from a close season break which was extended because of his involvement in Nigeria’s Confederations Cup campaign in Brazil.

Lennon had anticipated being without Ambrose’s services tonight but may now press him straight into action, given the injuries to Mulgrew and van Dijk and the unavailability of new French defender Steven Mouyokolo, whose signing was not completed in time.

The selection of Ambrose immediately after his return from Nigeria’s Africa Cup of Nations triumph in February this year backfired for Lennon when the defender was badly at fault in Celtic’s 3-0 home defeat in the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie against Juventus.

“That’s not coming into my thinking at all,” insisted Lennon. “Efe trained with us for the first time yesterday and looked fine. Looking at him then, it wouldn’t be a gamble to play him here.”

Lennon, meanwhile, expressed his confidence that this evening’s match will pass off peacefully after several nights of parade-related rioting in Belfast.

“Preparations have gone well and it hasn’t had an impact on us at all,” he said. “We are hoping the night will be remembered for all the right reasons. There may be things happening in the background (in terms of extra security) that the police are working hard at. But for us it’s been a normal Champions League trip. We are being well looked after and so far it’s been seamless.”