The low points of 2020 for Celtic aren’t difficult to pinpoint. They have only lost twice in a calendar year mangled by a global pandemic. Both these defeats came in knock-out European competition.
For gross negligence, the 3-1 reverse at home to Copenhagen in the last 32 of the Europa League in February was put firmly in the shade by the 2-1 scoreline that ended the club’s Champions League qualification hopes against Ferencvaros in Glasgow five weeks ago.
In terms of how not to negotiate the tricky tie in Sarajevo - on which rests European group stage football for a 10th year running for the Scottish champions - these two eliminations would seem masterclasses. Quite the reverse, petitioned Neil Lennon. Who needs to be on the wrong end of another European upset this year like he needs a hole in the head.
“They actually give me encouragement,” he said of the performances that accompanied the exits to the Danes and the Hungarians, who this week overcame Molde to ensure a first appearance in the Champions League. “First of all, we were really disappointed not to beat Ferencváros as we only had ourselves to blame. But we dominated Ferencváros- we should have won comfortably.
“That gives me a lot of encouragement going forward that we can do that to teams. But we have to be concentrated for the 90 minutes in all the right areas. It’s good for Ferencváros that they got through but for me it’s tinged with disappointment but encouragement because in terms of our overall performance we were better than them – a lot better than them.
“We can build on that in the Europa League. The important thing is to get through. The whole thing opens up if you get into the group stages. Then you can start to really look forward to the big games and the development of the team.
“It’s important for the club to have European football every year. It’s important for the players. It’s been a little bit of a transitional period over the past five to six weeks but we are starting to see the squad settle.
“We’ve freshened things up here and there because we’ve had a block of seven games. This is the sixth one and then we’ve obviously got st Johnstone at the weekend. We’ve won five out of five and we’ll endeavour to win all seven now.”
Celtic have been helped to their most recent victories by the contribution of Jeremie Frimpong. His lightning sorties down the right have certainly provided Lennon’s team with an another attacking dimension following the loss of James Forrest to injury.
During the early weeks of the campaign the teenager seemed to be struggling to produce the output that made his first season in Scotland so lauded, but the Manchester City product seems now to have regained his confidence, and that of his manager.
“It’s important for him to build on what he did last season,” said Lennon. “He’d an excellent breakthrough year, if you want to call it that. He was a little bit hit and miss at the start of the season but a lot of the players were adjusting.
“Now he’s back in full flow and he’s been absolutely excellent for us in the past couple of games. He’s getting back to the form that he showed last year. He’s a year older and more experienced so I’ve no qualms about playing him.”
Lennon equally has no qualms about insisting the near £10m that could be banked from reaching the Europa League good stages won’t determine whether, before the transfer window closes next Monday, he requires to sell a player or not to offset the cash-drains imposed by this Covid-19 age and missing out on the £30m Champions League bounty.
“We want to keep the squad and we’ve been pretty strong on that,” said Lennon, with the pursuit of an historic 10th title central to the determination not to have such as Odsonne Edouard or Kristoffer Ajer prised away, as further reninforcements for the left-back and midfield areas are sought.
“We don’t want anyone to leave. If that means we have to dig our heels in then so be it. But I think we’re quite strong on that. I’ve had no indication that I’ll have to sell a player. [The money from getting through] would be really important and would put us on a really decent financial footing but it is a by-product of the game really. We’ve not really given it that much thought. I just want us to get through and play well and we will have to.”
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