Neil Lennon: ‘Rome winner may have changed Olivier Ntcham’s whole outlook’
That’s how Neil Lennon assesses the situation of the French midfielder who, at the start of the season, was giving the strong impression he was in a hurry to leave the club.
Celtic manager Lennon had to hold clear-the-air talks with Ntcham in July after comments from the 23-year-old appeared in the French media expressing the view a move away from Scotland was necessary to further his development.
Signed from Manchester City for £4.5 million in the summer of 2017, Ntcham has been linked with Roma, Porto and Marseille at various times.
But he is under contract at Celtic until 2022 and Lennon feels his dramatic stoppage-time winning goal in the club’s historic first victory on Italian soil against Lazio, which secured their place in the last 32 of the Europa League, may have been a personal turning point.
“He is happy to be a part of it,” said Lennon. “The goal in Rome may just have changed his whole outlook on things.
“I saw a difference in him even before Rome. We had a chat about his comments earlier in the season – whether they were misconstrued, there may have been some truth in them. But he has really settled down now and he is training very well. The way he is seeing things now, he might feel ‘why shouldn’t I stay here?’ Because things are going well.
“We’ve beaten Lazio away from home and he played a huge part in that. Maybe that makes him think the grass isn’t always greener and he can fulfil a lot of things at Celtic for whatever length of time he is here.”
Ntcham has been unable to nail down a regular place in Lennon’s side this season, starting just eight games and making a further 12 substitute appearances, including the one which saw him score his fourth goal of the campaign in Rome.
But Lennon has confirmed he will be in the starting eleven on Thursday night when Celtic host Rennes in their penultimate Europa League Group G fixture.
“He has played brilliantly in the games he has played for me,” added Lennon. “He’s been unfortunate not to play more often, that’s just down to the quality of the rest.
“He is some player, really high calibre in his manipulation of the ball. We are seeing more consistency from him now, when previously he was more up and down.
“Certainly, on the ball he has fantastic technique and he works hard at that. Going the other way defensively, he is improving that aspect as well.”
Lennon, who has winger Mikey Johnston, pictured, available again after a near three-month injury absence, insists he will keep changes to his side to a minimum against Rennes, despite Celtic having already qualified for the knockout phase of the tournament with two games to spare.
He is keen to seize the opportunity to top the group, something Celtic have never previously done in either the Champions League or Europa League, which would see them seeded for the last 32 draw.
“It’s weird not being under pressure to win a European game but you try and add pressure to it yourself,” said Lennon.
“Try and win the game first of all and keep your momentum going. Because if you lose the game, it can affect you a little bit psychologically. The danger with Rennes is how they approach the game - do they come with a freedom? Will they play younger ones? Or do they just fulfil a fixture?
“What they have got is good pace in their team, they are very good on the counter attack. We have to prepare for that. I’d like to finish the group with a 100 percent home record. So we will try and reinforce that to the players before kick-off on Thursday night.
“We also want to win the group. Whether you want to call it a record or a milestone - just keep ticking them off. Our home form is important, whether it be domestically or in Europe.
“I don’t think there will be any coming off it from the players. We will definitely try to instil the edge in them and play at the tempo we want to play at.
“I will try and put out the strongest team possible, Mikey is back and will be on the bench, Olivier will definitely start because he’s been playing well and will bring a bit of freshness into the midfield. The rest is basically as you were.”
Lennon, however, will look to rest several key players for Celtic’s final group match against Cluj in Romania on 12 December, a month in which they will play nine fixtures in 29 days. “Yes, we’ll look to do it for that game if we can,” he said. “That’s important with all the games in December. We can also give some who haven’t played as much the opportunity of a competitive, good quality game.”