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Biton hopes to put hurt behind him in Champions League

IT is doubtful whether there is a single player at Celtic right now with a greater personal incentive to return to the Champions League group stages next season than Nir Biton.

The club's Israeli holding midfielder appears to have the subtleties to succeed at that level, but his first taste of Europe's premier club competition was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Not only was he limited to a couple of substitute appearances as Celtic finished bottom of their group, he still burns with injustice when he thinks about his dismissal against Ajax for a tackle on Thulani Serero.

"I want to play at the highest level with Celtic and that is the Champions League," Biton said. "This season was my first experience of it and it wasn't so good.

"These things can happen. I was just unlucky. I saw that tackle maybe five times in that game. Sometimes you get a yellow, sometimes you get a red. If I had got a yellow, nobody would have said anything. I didn't sleep that night, although the gaffer called me in afterwards and he was pleased with me. He told me I had to be smart for the next time and that was it. I've moved on."

If that was the past, the present for the Israeli player, who joined for £700,000 from FC Ashdod in August 2013, is completing his rehab from a groin problem in time to return to the first team by the end of the season. Now targeting the Premiership meeting with Aberdeen, Biton is ahead of schedule, but the real priority is ensuring he is in prime condition by the time the qualifiers start in mid July, just days after the World Cup final. To that end, if he is not back in first team action for Celtic, he won't be participating in Israel's summer friendlies.

"Whatever the manager wants me to do, I will do," said Biton. "We are near the end of the season, so I don't want to rush to play one more game. It's important I'm fit for the Champions League games."

Biton's injury was sustained on international duty, rather than in domestic action, and the Israeli midfielder took issue with the complaints of his countryman and team-mate Beram Kayal, that the Scottish game was overly physical. "When I signed for Celtic I knew the style of football and that if you want to play at the highest level you have to play at this level also," he said. "These kind of things happen. Sometimes you get injured but I don't see anything more dangerous here. When you go into a game worried about going into tackles, that is when you get injured."

Meanwhile, Neil Lennon admitted last night that there was an "inevitability" about Fraser Forster's likely departure which makes it prudent for the club to make preparations for his replacement. The goalkeeper is unlikely to be short of suitors this summer, and while Lennon would love him to stay, that may not be the most realistic outcome.

The club have been linked with Arsenal goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, Argentinian club Gimnasia's Fernando Monetti and former Scotland goalkeeper Craig Gordon, who is without a club - but Lennon said the names linked so far were wide of the mark.

"Fraser seems happy here but there is almost an inevitability about it so we have to prepare," said Lennon. "He may say: 'I want to stay' which would delight everyone. But there has to be a realism. We haven't had any inquires but we are expecting some."

Another man likely to be in demand is Johan Mjallby, and Lennon knows his assitant manager may knock on his door one day and say he is departing to embark on his own managerial career.

"If he came to me tomorrow and said I want to go and manage somewhere, would it surprise me?" said Lennon. "Not really. Would I want him to go? Not really."

The race for the Scottish manager of the year is particularly wide open and Lennon admits there are plenty of other candidates. "Derek [McInnes] has won a trophy for Aberdeen so he would be a candidate as would Stuart McCall as well," said Lennon. "Jackie [McNamara] in terms of the brand of football Dundee United play and rearing young players. Alex Neil has done a good job at Hamilton Accies while Ally [McCoist] has gone unbeaten all season.

"He is in a final and has an opportunity to get Rangers into another final. In really different circumstances, he has been excellent."

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