Celtic must hold on to trump cards if they are to ace Europe next year

NEIL Lennon today insisted Celtic will be better equipped to cope with the Champions League in the future as a result of this season.

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Samaras and Ledley have been touted elsewhere
Samaras and Ledley have been touted elsewhere

But Lennon admits he will have to hold on to his best players in the January transfer window and in the summer in order to enjoy success on the continent next term.

The Scottish champions had high hopes entering their Group H games against AC Milan, Ajax and Barcelona this year given their achievements in the 2012/13 campaign.

Celtic had famously defeated pre-tournament favourites Barcelona 2-1 at Parkhead and beat Spartak Moscow both home and away to qualify for the knockout stages.

Yet, the loss of the spine of their team - Gary Hooper, Victor Wanyama and Kelvin Wilson had all departed - appeared to count against them this time around.

A narrow 2-1 win over Dutch opponents Ajax at home was the only highlight of their involvement in the group stages of Europe's premier club competition.

The Glasgow club failed to even finish in third spot in their section and secure the consolation of a place in the Europa League.

But Lennon has been through it all, and much worse, before in his three-and-a- half years in charge of Celtic and feels his charges will ultimately benefit from their experiences.

"As disappointing as it was not to progress, I do hope that many of the players will benefit from being involved in the Champions League this season," he said.

"As manager, I have certainly had a few painful experiences in Europe. Utrecht a few seasons ago, for example, was very hard to take. But you do learn from it."

Lennon, though, knows that in order to compete at such a high level next season Celtic will have to retain the services of all of their key personnel.

Joe Ledley and Georgios Samaras have both failed to agree new deals and there is speculation the pair will leave either next month or at the end of the season.

Barclays Premier League clubs Cardiff City and Hull City have been linked with moves for Welsh midfielder Ledley and Greek forward Samaras respectively.

In addition, centre-half Virgil van Dijk and right-back Mikael Lustig are sure to have attracted interest as a result of their impressive personal displays.

The departure of any of that quartet, or indeed any of their team-mates, would seriously damage Celtic's chances of qualifying for the group stage, never mind the last 32.

Lennon said: "If we are to compete at Champions League level then it is difficult to let good players go. It takes time to replace them and build another team."

The Celtic manager used the games against AC Milan, Ajax and Barcelona to hand players like Amido Balde, Nir Biton, Tom Rogic and van Dijk a taste of European football.

In the Nou Camp last week he started Biton, the 22-year-old Israeli midfielder, and also played Teemu Pukki, the 23-year-old Finnish striker, up front from kick-off.

LENNON is confident that both men will, despite Celtic being on the receiving end of a 6-1 thrashing by the Catalan superstars, have had their eyes opened as a result of the run-out.

He said: "Like the rest of the players, Nir had a tough night in Barcelona.

"But it will have been a good education for him. He will have seen the game for what it is at the highest level. I hope he learns from it.

"I am sure Nir will benefit a great deal from the experience.

"He has come to Scotland from Israel without any European experience at all. I wanted to play him last Wednesday night and give him an idea what it was like.

"He might have come away from the stadium slightly shellshocked. But I think in time he will say to himself: 'Well, that is the level we have got to be at. What do I now have to do to get there?'

"He might never get there. But at least he knows how high he has to aim and how hard he has to work to achieve the level that is expected of you as a player in the Champions League."

Like many Celtic fans at Parkhead, Lennon has been impressed with the displays of the player he landed for a £700,000 transfer fee from Israeli club Ashdod back in August.

Biton filled in for the injured Charlie Mulgrew in central midfield alongside captain Scott Brown in the 1-0 win over Hibs at Celtic Park last Saturday and acquitted himself well.

The chances are high that with Mulgrew still sidelined he will feature in the SPFL Premiership meeting with Hearts at Celtic Park this weekend after such an accomplished showing.

His manager enthused: "Nir is a good footballer. I think he needs more games. He needs time to acclimatise to the pace that we want to play at and the pace of the game here in Scotland.

"But he will certainly do that. Athletically, he is very good and technically he is very good as well. And there is a lot of scope for him to develop physically. Remember, he is still in his early 20s.

"He has played pretty well in the first team games that he has been involved in domestically against Ross County, Hearts and then Hibs at the weekend. Hopefully he will go from strength to strength."

Football

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