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Celtic v Ross County: Manager does not subscribe to common view as domestic chores keep side busy

Neil Lennon has heard it all before when it comes to the Clydesdale Bank Premier League: the standard is too poor, it leaves clubs ill-prepared for the Champions League, the gulf in quality between domestic and European football is too great to bridge.

Neil Lennon wants his side to gather some momentum
Neil Lennon wants his side to gather some momentum

The issue remains as complicated as ever. Celtic have been strong enough to reach the last 16 of the Champions League and will clearly win the Premier League this season with plenty to spare, and yet they have dropped league points to Ross County, Hibernian, St Johnstone (twice), Kilmarnock, Dundee United and Inverness Caledonian Thistle. The club are relentlessly lobbying to play in a more lucrative competition outwith Scottish football, yet Lennon is perfectly happy to talk up the domestic game.

It was with a certain exasperation that he discussed the matter yesterday, as Celtic's thoughts had to adjust from the excitement of facing Juventus next year to the reality of taking on Ross County this afternoon. The Parkhead club have seven-and-a-half weeks until the first leg against Juventus in Glasgow. They face County, Dundee, Hibs and Motherwell before the 16-day league mini-break, in which they will have a week off before heading to a training camp, possibly in Spain. They then take on Hearts, Kilmarnock and Inverness in the league, St Mirren in the Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final and Raith Rovers in the Scottish Cup before the resumption of their European campaign.

They currently lead the division by four points with a game in hand. Rather than viewing their coming weeks as a lull before confronting Juventus, Lennon regards the next two months as an opportunity to properly stabilise their league form and open up a commanding lead.

"What we want to get is momentum," he said. "People can throw anything they like at the SPL. They criticise it when it suits them, but it has not done us any harm. We are in the last 16 and we have been well prepared for all of the European games. Physically, the boys are in great condition and obviously when you are winning you can go into the games in a confident vein of form. There is no doubt that during the league campaign so far they were having one eye on the European games, but now they can fully focus on the SPL. They haven't had it easy in the SPL. It is alright me saying our players have had one eye on it, but teams have made it really hard for us at times.

"It would be hugely beneficial to have a points buffer before going in against Juventus. We want to put as much daylight between ourselves and the rest as we possibly can. But some of the teams, like Inverness and Aberdeen, are not going to go away easily."

The cliche would suggest Celtic players will be playing for their places in the coming games, having to maintain a standard against domestic opposition which will strengthen their case for inclusion against the Italians. Lennon said that would not be the case. "I just want them pushing each other all the way. It will be horses for courses as we have done throughout the campaign. We will have a look at Juventus. I might not even pick players on form going into the game. I might pick players who will be suited to play Juventus. That is the way we have to approach the game."

James Forrest is back in the squad having not played since suffering a hamstring injury at the end of October, although Kris Commons is out. Celtic will face County in Glasgow for the first time since losing to them in the 2010 Scottish Cup semi-final. They proved problematic in the sides' only previous league meeting this season, being held 1-1 in Dingwall in August. "I think it is a great club," said Lennon. "They have got a great set-up, a good young manager [Derek Adams] who has done wonders on a really limited budget. When you consider that unbeaten record they had, and the fact the first division is not easy to get out of, it is impressive. They have stabilised themselves in the SPL.

"They have got goals in them. They have got good individuals and a good work ethic. I would say they will make it stodgy for us again. I just want to maintain our momentum. In these next four games I am looking for big performances."

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