Celtic hope that these Champions League qualifiers can be different from a year ago – a hope bolstered by an unlikely similarity.
Their exit to AEK Athens last August was clouded by central defensive issues – including non-compliance from Dedryck Boyata – that left the club having to rely on such as Kristoffer Ajer, Jozo Simunovic and Jack Hendry. Now, Neil Lennon is emboldened to believe that his team can prevail against Cluj on Tuesday night, to set up a play-off against Slavia Prague because, eh, he can rely on Ajer and Simunovic.
The pair have been the Celtic manager’s go-to men for the heart of his defence since he assumed the reins in the wake of Brendan Rodgers’ departure in February. An unlikely turn of events, especially for the previously peripheral Simunovic. He has stuck by the pair – suspensions such as yesterday apart – even after the summer arrival of Christopher Julien for the hefty sum of £7m. It follows Simunovic relegating £13m-loanee Filip Benkovic to bench status for the run-in. Lennon gives a simple reason for the renaissance enjoyed by the Croatian, linked with a move to Lille in recent weeks. And, after banking £25m from the sale of Kieran Tierney, he also places Ajer in the category of a player he simply could not countenance being sold.
“I didn’t realise how good Jozo was until I saw him playing and Kris was very consistent anyway, and the more they played together the happier I was,” said Lennon, whose side will look to capitalise on their 1-1 draw in Romania in the home return leg of their third-round qualifier. “With Jozo you have to be mindful of his historical knee issue. His training patterns are sort of constricted. You have to look after him and just make sure he is fit to play the games. But they are a good partnership. They were at the end of last season and the two of them have continued in same vein.
“Kris has played almost every minute since I have come in. I think he is an outstanding talent who will only get better and Jozo is what you would call a proper centre half. He wants to head it, he is comfortable on the ball and reads the play well. So I have been really pleased with him. Christopher has had to be patient but again I thought, when he came on, in the 15-20 minutes on Wednesday, he looked really good.
“It is a big compliment to the two guys that I haven’t had to play Christopher. It is good to have that strength in what is a really important area. With Jozo it is going to be difficult to play three times in the week but there is a continuity there that has been carried on and a familiarity. Christopher will get up to speed as we go on. We know what we have got with him. He is a man, really tough, uncompromising. We will see more of that as we go on.
“It has been difficult [in the qualifiers] because we have got two new full backs and Christopher coming in. So everyone has been adjusting to how we play. So it is important to have that cornerstone from last year, that familiarity. It is a good partnership. I am not saying it is going to be permanent, it can’t be anyway. There is a flexibility there that I like because we can go four and we can go three as well.”
Lennon said he is having a “long list” of players compiled by acting recruitment head Nicky Hammond that might be ripe for bringing in on loan as a result of not making the 25-man squads at English Premier League clubs. That comes on the back of the transfer window closing down south, at the end of which Kristoffer Ajer came on the radar of Rodgers’ Leicester, rebuffed late on with a £20m bid for Callum McGregor. “I think is important to have that backbone and the architects in the dressing room that keep the standard high. On and off the field,” the Celtic manager said. “You can touch on a couple [McGregor, Simunovic] and there are another couple as well. For me, Kris Ajer has been outstanding and at 21 has got so much to look forward to. There has been interest in him but he would be one of the last ones I would want out the door the way he is progressing.”
Celtic must ensure they close the door on a Cluj side that Lennon expects to be more cautious than in an open first leg. It’s a strategy that brought them a precious 2-2 draw in Israel against Maccabi Haifa in last round.
“They may play a little bit differently than the first leg. I’d imagine they would play a bit more on the counter attack and sit in a little bit more. But we looked dangerous and I expect us to be on the front foot a lot more. It wasn’t easy in Romania, the pitch was dry, clumpy, and it was very humid.
“I thought we handled it well and our reaction to going a goal down was great, and that has pleased me a lot. I’m not saying we are cut and dried by any means, but to have the away goal, that is a good result away from home at a tough venue. There was a lot in the game that has encouraged me for the second leg.”