Neil Lennon has certainly known more straightforward build-ups to the opening game of a Champions League qualifying campaign.
While Boli Bolingoli’s jaunt to Spain put Celtic’s season on ice and the Belgian defender into Covid-19 quarantine, Lennon admits he has been climbing the walls at home.
The Celtic manager is understandably keen to try and put the disruptive episode behind him when his team return to action with their single-leg first qualifying round tie against Icelandic champions KR Reykjavik at Parkhead tonight.
“It’s been very frustrating,” said Lennon. “I think I’ve been pretty difficult to live with at home. We’re all itching to get back into competitive action. We all know the importance of this game and those coming up.
“We’re fully focused on getting back into the style of play and the intensity of play that we’ve become accustomed to over the last 16 months or so.
“We’ve just made the best of the situation after the league games against St Mirren and Aberdeen were postponed. We’ve had a good week’s training. Obviously we would have liked the games under our belt going into this one, but the players are just itching to get back on the pitch and get playing again.”
Celtic are heavy favourites to overcome a Reykjavik side whose own preparations were complicated by a recent two-week suspension of their domestic league after a spike in coronavirus cases in Iceland.
They returned to action last Friday, losing 2-1 at home to Hafnarfjordur, and while Lennon is respectful of their abilities he is bullish about Celtic’s approach to securing a second qualifying round tie at home to either Hungarian champions Ferencvaros or Djurgardens of Sweden next week.
“We couldn’t get anyone over to watch KR in person on Friday night but we’ve got footage of that game and analysis of other matches they have played,” he said.
“They are typical of teams from that part of the world – physically strong, athletic and very compact in defending. They’ve got decent pace in wide areas. But for me, it’s about us and how we approach the game. We’re at home, we know it’s only one leg. The preparation has gone pretty well and we are just focussing on getting out there, winning the game and trying to get into a rhythm again.
“Our approach is we are going to be positive. We are really determined to get our season up and running.
“The fact it is just one leg doesn’t really change anything for us, because we are at home and we always want to win our home games. We will re-emphasise that to the players, get a head of steam up and try to play at a tempo Reykjavik will find difficult to defend against.”
Celtic have failed to qualify for the Champions League group stage for the past two years, while Lennon has not worked in that environment since the final season of his first spell as manager of the club in 2013-14.
“It’s always important for the club,” he added. “We missed out in the previous two seasons and we want to go one better this time. We had a good Europa League campaign last season which ended disappointingly but the players will have got a great deal of experience from that.
“Albeit, there are no crowds at the minute and you can see in the Champions League and Europa League games over the past few weeks, they have been full of real cup tie type of games. I’m not expecting this to be any different.
“The big European nights brighten up the season. They are important for the gravitas of the club and the development of the players, individually and as a team, to come up against the best.
“The Champions League is the best competition in the world. For myself as a coach, it would be amazing to go back there with this group of players. But it’s not about me. It’s about the likes of Jeremie Frimpong, Chris Jullien and Hatem Elhamed who haven’t experienced it before.
“Also guys like Ryan Christie and even Odsonne Edouard, who haven’t had much football at that level. So it’s pivotal we try and negotiate these ties the best we can and then it opens up the season for you.
“In terms of their actual experience as players, there is nothing better than the Champions League.
“I was late coming to that party as a player. I was 29 when I signed for Celtic. I’d played in the Premier League but the pace, intensity and quality of the Champions League was fantastic.
“I want these players to experience that but we need to do the hard work first and these are difficult games to negotiate.”
Lennon confirmed that Swiss striker Albian Ajeti, signed from West Ham United for £5 million last week, will be in the squad tonight and could make his debut from the bench.
“He is still a little bit short in terms of overall fitness but he’s trained well,” said Lennon who is still without injured duo Leigh Griffiths and Mikey Johnston.
“We were very keen on him last summer. We really liked the look of him. He went to West Ham for a lot of money and things didn’t work out for him, but I don’t think you lose the ability.
“You maybe lose a bit of confidence or self belief but the talent is there. He just needs to get his head switched on to Celtic now and hit the ground running as best he can.
“Albian is a goalscorer. He’s smart, he has good presence at the top end of the pitch. He is similar to Gary Hooper, that sort of intelligent striker. He bumps defenders and can finish off both feet.
“He is good in the air too, he will get on the end of crosses for us. I think he will be a good signing for us.”
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