Neil Lennon’s criticism of his players was startling and Celtic could now cash in on Ajer and Ntcham

Those who wish to leave could be helped out the door

Frustrated Neil Lennon gesticulates to his players during the defeat by Ferencvaros. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

As Celtic and their supporters try to come to terms with their Champions League qualifying Groundhog Day, manager Neil Lennon’s reaction has raised serious doubts over which players will still be around for the club’s next attempt to end what has become a worryingly repetitive manner of failure to reach the group stage of Europe’s elite tournament.

The fall-out from Wednesday’s 2-1 defeat against Ferencvaros in the second qualifying round tie at Celtic Park, so painfully familiar for the Scottish champions after their eliminations at the hands of Cluj and AEK Athens in the two previous campaigns, was given an added edge by Lennon’s assertion that some of his squad would rather be earning their wages elsewhere.

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It is perhaps the first time since he returned for his second spell in charge of Celtic that Lennon has cast any aspersions on the personnel under his command.

Since replacing Brendan Rodgers in February last year, he has been consistently fulsome in his praise of both the attitude and ability of the Celtic players with his oft-repeated assertion “I can’t ask any more of them” as they have extended their unprecedented monopoly of domestic trophy wins.

So it was startling to hear Lennon state in no uncertain terms on Wednesday night that he feels some players are simply not giving him or the club enough in terms of their on-field efforts and commitment to the cause.

Lennon didn’t name names, inevitably leading to speculation over the identity of those he suggested have been “making waves to leave the club” over the past six months.

It now seems likely there will be some high-profile departures from Celtic before the extended transfer window closes in just over five weeks’ time.

While chief executive Peter Lawwell and his board do not budget for the £30 million the club would earn from participation in the Champions League group stage, it would have been an especially welcome revenue stream at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has impacted so heavily on the finances which normally come through the turnstiles.

If Celtic cannot be classed as vulnerable to bids from the English Premier League or elsewhere for their players, missing out on the Champions League may certainly make them more disposed to accepting any attractive offers which come their way ahead of the transfer deadline on 5 October.

Odsonne Edouard, whose absence on Wednesday night due to a thigh injury was so keenly felt by Celtic, has been firmly on the radar of many clubs in Europe’s “big five” leagues for some time now.

The French striker is now in the penultimate season of his current contract with the club and there has been no indication of the 22-year-old signing an extension.

While many Celtic supporters fear selling Edouard at this stage could fatally undermine this season’s quest for a record-breaking 10th consecutive league title, the business argument for accepting a fee widely projected at £30m for the player would be compelling from the club’s perspective.

In the previous two summer transfer windows, the sales of Moussa Dembele and Kieran Tierney for £19.8m and £25m respectively have compensated for the absence of Champions League group stage income.

Norwegian defender Kristoffer Ajer and French midfielder Olivier Ntcham, both also under contract until the summer of 2022, are others on whom Celtic might look to cash in. Ajer has been strongly linked with AC Milan, while Ntcham last year expressed enthusiasm for a possible move to Marseille, who are confirmed admirers of him, as are Southampton.

With the start of the English Premier League season in a fortnight, any interest in Celtic’s players from its cash-rich clubs should crystallise soon amid persistent speculation Leicester City remain keen on reuniting Callum McGregor with his old boss Rodgers.

Celtic’s £3m capture of Motherwell midfielder David Turnbull took their own spending in the current transfer window to £12m following the earlier signings of goalkeeper Vasilis Barkas and striker Albian Ajeti.

Lennon will seek further reinforcements as he looks to recalibrate a team and squad which he feels has lost impetus since returning to action after lockdown.

The manager’s stinging comments after the Ferencvaros loss appeared to come as a surprise to his captain Scott Brown who felt there was no lack of effort on Celtic’s part, simply an all-round failure to reach the level of performance necessary.

“It’s about every player on the park and every single one of us wasn’t good enough,” reflected Brown.

“We dominated the ball but couldn’t get the ball in the net. We weren’t clinical enough and sometimes not physical enough as well.

“Ferencvaros went up the park a couple of times and scored. For us, it wasn’t the best game we have ever played in. We wanted to be in the Champions League, it’s where we feel this club deserves to be. We’ve let the manager down as well.

“It hurts all of the lads. For me, the lads want to be here. I don’t know what people have said to the manager individually, to be perfectly honest.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if they want to be here or not. Once they go on that park, everyone gives 100 per cent.

“But for now, if people don’t want to be here it’s hard. But it’s not up to me whether they stay or not. That’s for the manager and the board, it’s a discussion with the players who want to be here and who don’t want to be here.”

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