Neil Lennon urges jaded Celtic stars to rest and be thankful

NEIL LENNON enjoys seeing his players gain international recognition.

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Tony Watt was drained after his efforts against Barcelona
Tony Watt was drained after his efforts against Barcelona

He considers it is reward for the fact they are doing well for Celtic.

However, when the Hoops boss discovered that Miku and Efe Ambrose had been excused boots for the friendly international between Venezuela and Nigeria in Miami in the early hours of Thursday morning, he freely admits he heaved a huge sigh of relief.

Lennon has made his feelings about the timing of this international break well known. Coming just three weeks after a competitive double-header for most countries, and before a three-month hiatus for World Cup qualifiers, Lennon simply can't fathom what benefit there is to be gained from this week's matches.

With 22 games played already this season by the Hoops across three competitions, including the ultra-taxing Champions League, Lennon believes the best reward for all his players would be well-earned respite.

Ambrose – voted into the team of the week for his performance in the game against Barcelona in the Nou Camp – is in particular need of recovery time, and the manager has been happy to sanction it ahead of the trip to Aberdeen at lunchtime on Saturday then the crucial Champions League match in Lisbon a week tonight.

He said: "Efe has not been picked for the Nigerian squad for their game in Miami, and I want to give him a few days off. I think he is going back to see his family in Israel."

Where the central defender will be able to recall all the highs and lows which have peppered his career since arriving at Celtic from FC Ashdod.

He did not get clearance to join his new team until mid-August, but has surpassed all expectations.

Lennon, however, insisted: "I am not surprised at all. Efe has been a fantastic signing for us. There is great stability there with him and Kelvin Wilson. Efe has made a huge jump in his life, culturally, environmentally and football wise. He has adapted very, very well to it all."

Which makes it all the more disappointing that he will be missing for up to three weeks from mid-January when he heads to the African Cup of Nations with Nigeria.

"Hopefully, they will get knocked out early and we will have him back just when we are coming back off our mid-season break," said Lennon, half joking.

"We are looking at giving them all a week off, then having a week's training somewhere warm. But it will all depend where we are at that stage of the season."

The impact Celtic have made in the Champions League ensures the Parkhead club will not be short of lucrative offers from hosts keen to invite the team that beat Barcelona to their patch.

"I am sure there will be offers," said Lennon. "Hopefully, we are becoming a bit of a big draw again. But, I have to balance that with what is right for the squad at the time."

At the moment, that is rest, and the importance of making the most of this rare downtime can't be overestimated, in the opinion of the man who has tried to keep his squad fresh and energetic since the campaign began at the start of August.

They have already contested 22 games, and the toll is telling in the form of lacklustre performances like the one against St Johnstone at the weekend.

Lennon will not allow any of his players to use their European exertions as an excuse to drop their effort in domestic games, but he can make allowances for mental and physical tiredness being a factor.

Which is why he wants to make Lennoxtown a ghost town for as long as possible this week. Lennon said: "The boys who are still here will be well rested and, hopefully, we will get some good news on the injuries we have."

He continued: "We could not do anything with them after Wednesday's game against Barcelona. This is what we are learning as we go along.

"Even on Friday, we couldn't do anything with them. That was the worst day, really, because the adrenalin is still going the day after the game.

"But, when they do come down, there is a stiffness and soreness, that sort of thing. We are learning that the second day after a game like that is an important day for recovery, as well."

This fatigue can leave players more susceptible to injury, and Sunday's draw with St Johnstone sent another clutch of players seeking comfort in an already-congested treatment room. Goal hero Tony Watt, who has been forced to withdraw from the Scotland Under-21 squad, was one of them, injuring an ankle within minutes of coming on against Saints. But, he showed courage and determination not only to stay on, but to continue his scoring form.

That bravery is another tick in the 18-year-old's box, and Lennon said: "Tony is going to take a few knocks, but he is doing great and we are delighted with him. He got another great goal on Sunday, and was really brave going in there to win the ball.

"Tony gives us that spark we need at times. It was important we made the change we did at half-time, when he replaced Miku. But, even then, for the last 20 minutes, there were people running on empty.

"There is no doubt Wednesday against Barcelona took a helluva lot out of them, both mentally and physically. But I couldn't change things that much because I don't have the players to bring in.

"We have played a lot more games than everyone else in Scotland, high-intensity games, and we are only in the second week in November.

"We have played four Champions league qualifiers and four Champions League group games, two of them against Barcelona.

"We are also in the semi-final of the League Cup. So, along with the SPL matches, that is a lot of games already.

"Then, most of them are away on international duty as well, so they are playing another four or five games, including World Cup qualifiers, on top of their club matches."

That's an awful lot of football for any team, and a huge ask of one which is so young. So, the refuge of the end of the Champions League group stage on December 5, when Spartak come to Glasgow, and the chance to play weekends only for a few weeks, is eagerly anticipated by Lennon.

In the meantime, he will have to be satisfied with a few days in which to catch his breath before going again.

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