There are numerous benefits to be had for Celtic for qualifying from their Europa League group with two games to spare but the major one is how it will allow them to negotiate the January transfer window from a position of strength.
As manager Neil Lennon pointed out, the guaranteed opportunity to travel deeper into the competition in 2020 should help them not only to attract players who will enhance their prospects of success at home and abroad but also to hold on to their best assets who will surely be attracting attention from wealthy predators.
Scotland internationals James Forrest and Callum McGregor had signed extended and improved contracts before the two victories over Lazio ensured that Lennon had progressed to the knock-out phase for the second time in his two spells in charge. It means that negotiations for targets pinpointed by Nick Hammond, their head of football operations, can begin now, giving them a head start on rivals whose immediate future in continental competition is uncertain
“It’s excellent for the club,” said Lennon. “For one thing, it takes away the anxiety of playing on Thursdays and Sundays – while we still want to finish on top of the group, there won’t be the same stress levels in the European ties and we can rotate a bit more.
“When you look at us having nine fixtures in December, that will help. We need to balance that [by rotating the squad] but, in terms of signing players in January, us being in the knock-out stage is a huge carrot for them.
“I think we’re quite relaxed about things. We now have European football after Christmas and there’s already an opportunity for the team to win a trophy [they face Rangers at Hampden for the Betfred Cup on December 8]. The players are full of belief and playing well and it’s very rare that clubs spend big money in January. Plus we’re able to fend off any offers for our players we want to keep anyway.
“So, without tempting fate, we can move into January in a very strong position.”
Lennon will attempt to bolster his squad when the window reopens, with a striker and a holding midfielder likely to be at the top of his list at the moment.
“We’ll look at it, depending on injuries; we’ll see how Vakoun Issouf Bayo is in the next few weeks,” he said. “There may be one or two positions that we try to strengthen but I wouldn’t say that many. I don’t think we’ll do a huge amount of business in January.”
His biggest concern is that richer clubs will attempt to lure record signings Odsonne Edouard away at the turn of the year. Brendan Rodgers paid Paris St Germain £9m for the striker 15 months ago but they could more than double their money if they elected to cash in on the France under-21 star, who has been in scintillating form this season.
Lennon would not sanction his sale but he has been in the game for long enough to realise the matter may be taken out of his hands.
“You’ve got to worry about him,” he said. “You forget he’s still only 21 but yet again he did a [power] of work in Rome on Thursday night – on and off the ball – so he’s not going to play every game from here to the end of January, that’s for sure.”
Celtic had their best transfer window for years this summer and one of the new arrivals, Mohamed Elyounoussi, has learned to love football again after a fallow period at Southampton following a £16m move from Basle.
Lennon brought the Norway winger, inset left, to Glasgow on a season-long loan and has helped to rehabilitate the 25-year-old. “He has the pedigree and you can see his old instincts kicking in again,” said the Irishman. “He’s now up to speed fitness wise but he’s a very fit boy anyway. His quality is evident and we’ve watched him grow day by day, week by week.
“The confidence is back and there’s no question that he’s made us better, whether it’s from a central position or coming in off the wing. We’re delighted with him and not just for what he brings to the team but because he’s a really good lad off the pitch as well, very humble.
“We don’t want to over-egg his situation but we’ve spoken briefly about how it was for him before [at Southampton] and how this is a great club, he’s playing with very good players in four competitions and there’s a chance for him to… not re-invent himself but to get himself back up and running and doing what he’s good at.
“It’s worked both ways – we’ve been good for him and he’s helped us as well.”