Celtic struggling to find the best form, says club manager

Celtic struggling to find the best form, says club manager

BELFAST - Agence France-Presse
Celtic struggling to find the best form, says club manager

Celtic’s Joe Ledley celebrates his goal against Hibernian during their Scottish Cup Final soccer match at Hampden Park Stadium in Glasgow, Scotland May 26, 2013. REUTERS Photo

Celtic manager Neil Lennon admits his side are nowhere near their best as they prepare to take on Cliftonville in a vital Champions League qualifier in Belfast on July 17.

Lennon’s team have endured a far from ideal preparation for the crucial tie after conceding 12 goals in four friendly defeats on a pre-season tour of Germany disrupted by injuries and star sales.

The Scottish champions could be without a number of key players for the second qualifying round first leg match against the Northern Irish minnows.

Adam Matthews, Gary Hooper and Joe Ledley are all expected to be sidelined, while Kenya midfielder Victor Wanyama, a key figure last season, has been sold to Southampton.

And Lennon says starting their European campaign less than eight weeks since their Scottish Cup win over Hibernian at the end of last season is far from ideal.

“It’s so early, it’s a harsh reality of where we are,” Lennon said.

“We won the cup final at the end of May and we are back in on June 24.

“It’s been staggered and a bit disjointed because we have had a lot of injuries as well.

“I don’t even know what my best team is at the moment or which players I’ll have available to me.

“They are the ups and downs you have to cope with during pre-season, but I don’t think you’ll see us anywhere near our best for another two weeks or so.

“We know how difficult it’s going to be because these games are so early in the season.

“We’ll cover it as best we can but it won’t be easy for us.” Despite the financial gulf that separates the two sides, Lennon has warned his players against complacency against the team of part-timers, whose tiny Solitude ground has been extended to allow a 5,000 capacity crowd.

“What we can’t get involved in is the party or the carnival atmosphere,” Lennon said. “We have to be professional and go there to do a job.” One player desperate to play and make an impact at the Parkhead club is Australian international Tom Rogic The midfielder, who helped the Socceroos book their slot in Brazil next summer with a 1-0 win over Iraq, missed out on Celtic’s run to the Champions League last 16 last season after only joining the club from A-League side Central Coast Mariners in January.

The Scottish champions’ task this season is even tougher as they face three qualifying rounds just to reach the money-spinning group stages of the competition, but Rogic can’t wait to get involved.

“The Champions League will be a new experience for me,” he said.

“It would be a great achievement if I could play a part in it and it would also be good for the club and our season if we could make it into the group stage again. We just have to do our best to make sure we get there.
“I’m sure we’ll be ready for Cliftonville on Wednesday night. The squad is more or less the same and we all know our jobs.

“We’re comfortable playing with each other. We’ve all had a short break but we’re all back fit and fresh.

“I don’t know too much about Cliftonville. We would just rather concentrate on ourselves. “We know if we play to the best of our ability then we’ll be fine.” Despite Cliftonville’s stadium being less than a mile from the worst of the recent rioting in Northern Ireland, which has seen 39 police officers injured in loyalist clashes, the Police Service of Northern Ireland said there are no plans to postpone or switch the venue.