NEIL Lennon does not believe he has been let down by Celtic’s summer transfer dealings, despite them weakening his resources for the bid to reach the Champions League group stage.
The Scottish champions will attempt to recover from a 2-0 first leg defeat in their play-off round tie against Shakhter Karagandy at Celtic Park tonight, with Lennon upbeat about his team’s prospects against opponents he believes have been disrespectful towards them since their surprise victory in Kazakhstan last week.
But while Lennon has no doubts his players are capable of reversing the deficit, he admits he is currently having to perform a “patch-up job” with the squad at his disposal.
Celtic have sold three of the men who shone in their memorable Champions League campaign last season – Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and Kelvin Wilson – for combined fees of the £20.5 million. Four other senior players – Thomas Rogne, Paddy McCourt, Lassad Nouioui and Miku – also left during the close season.
So far, Lennon has been able to spend £7m on Amido Balde, Virgil van Dijk and Derk Boerrigter, while also snapping up Steven Mouyokolo on a free transfer. The capture of other targets, such as Finnish striker Teemu Pukki and Israeli midfielder Nir Biton, may depend on whether Celtic secure a place in tomorrow’s Champions League group stage draw in Monaco.
The Celtic manager has no issues with the way his club’s board have conducted their transfer business so far, however, and is firmly focused on overseeing an aggregate victory over Shakhter which he says would be as satisfying as any in his managerial tenure so far.
“I don’t feel short-changed, but I think the squad is short,” said Lennon.
“Seven players have gone out the door, four have come in and, out of those seven, we lost three very important players. We have tried to bring players in and that has not been forthcoming. I don’t feel short-changed by anybody – it’s just the way the circumstances have thrown themselves at us.
“We could have asked Kelvin to stay until this tie was over, but I don’t think that would have happened.
“I didn’t really want to sell Hooper when we did, but we had no alternative in the end. It’s just one of those things where, in the space of a month, we have lost three valuable assets to the squad. Every situation is avoidable, but I don’t think there is a lot more we could have done.
“But we still have a game to retrieve it all. I’m not saying it’s over. It’s not. I think we are still very much in this tie. Yeah, it would be as sweet as any victory I’ve had as manager. It would be, considering everything that has gone on in the last six or seven weeks, the amount of qualification games we have had to play and off the back of what happened last week as well.
“The squad is really stretched at the minute so we are trying to do the best patch-up job we possibly can. These things happen – so I am not putting my excuses forward before the end. We are a bit stretched but I think we will prevail.
“There’s a lot riding on the game. It’s so early in the season and we have always maintained that these games are the hardest for us to overcome for varying reasons.
“But I think the players are still angry from last week. There is always a fall-out after these games and things get said, so they will be very motivated to play in it and to prevail.”
Lennon has been personally irked by comments from his opposite number Viktor Kumykov. Skakhter’s Russian manager has been quoted as saying his team will repeat their two-goal display in Glasgow and has also claimed Celtic make the same fundamental defensive mistake in every game.
“He should tell me what it is, I would cut it out,” said Lennon. “Every team has a weakness, otherwise you would be keeping clean sheets in every single game.
“I don’t know where he is coming from on that one. There is no need for him to talk about my team – I haven’t talked about his that way. Sometimes you can set yourself up for things that come back to bite you.
“I don’t think Shakhter have been very respectful. I don’t know if it’s a new thing for them or not. But if they say they will score two, then we will just have to score five. It’s a very dangerous thing for them to think the job is done, because 2-0 is not a massive deficit to overturn. The performance in the first leg, the result and the things that have been said after the game – that’s all the motivation our players need. They will be up for the game, there’s no doubt about that. Since the final whistle went over there, they couldn’t wait to play the return game so we are really looking forward to starting the game on Wednesday night.”
Lennon had generally positive news to report on the injury front, with Georgios Samaras, Anthony Stokes, James Forrest and Derk Boerrigter all back in training yesterday. He is also hopeful Kris Commons will recover in time, but midfielder Beram Kayal will be sidelined for two weeks by the groin strain which forced him to limp out of Saturday’s 2-2 draw against Inverness.
“Our attacking options are greatly increased from the weekend,” added Lennon. “They are all desperate to play. If they are only 50-50, it might be detrimental to us and to themselves individually. We have to gauge that over the next 24 hours.”