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Lennon hopes 'last 16' card can play into Celtic's hands

CELTIC will use their qualification for the Champions League knock-out stage as a bargaining tool in contract discussions with Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper.

Neil Lennon insists Celtic will not be an easy opponent in the last 16
Neil Lennon insists Celtic will not be an easy opponent in the last 16

Wanyama, Hooper and Fraser Forster have had outstanding campaigns and manager Neil Lennon has acknowledged that bids may come in for his prominent players in January. Talks have been ongoing with Wanyama and Hooper for several months without reaching a conclusion. Lennon's hope is that the appeal of staying for at least two more Champions League ties will mean they lose none of their key men next month.

Such is his satisfaction with the balance of his squad, that Lennon will make no marquee signing next month despite the riches which have poured in from the European run. Just over £23m has been secured in Champions League appearance money, points bonuses and centralised television revenue – £2.8m of that was the reward for making it into the last 16. Capacity crowds generate around £1m-per-game in gate receipts and Celtic's first leg in the last 16 will be their sixth home tie, taking their total Champions League earnings this season to almost £30m.

Lennon remained cautious about what that would mean in the transfer window, though. When asked if he had the budget to make major changes, he said: "Possibly. But I don't want to spend mega money on one player because that will only disrupt the spirit. We are looking. There are positions we would like to strengthen: left-hand side, possibly centre-half. But whether we go and do it or not is another thing."

Lennon must consider strengthening his options as well as preserving what he already has. "Hooper is someone I hang my hat on because he is a goalscorer," added the manager. "He took his goal brilliantly against Spartak and generally played very well. He has a great temperament and when he turns it on he is a brilliant player. I have no doubt teams will be sniffing around him, but maybe reaching the last 16 will persuade them all now to stay for a little bit longer."

The draw for the last 16 will be held on December 20, with Celtic facing one of seven group winners: either Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke, Manchester United, Juventus, Malaga or PSG. They cannot draw the other group winner, Barcelona, as they both came out of Group G. The first leg will be at Celtic Park on February 12/13 or 19/20, with the second leg on March 5/6 or 12/13.

Celtic are unseeded and to some extent still unfancied, although Lennon remains unconcerned by the suggestion that some other clubs may wish to draw his team. "Why would anyone want us? We got 10 points. Other teams maybe scraped through with seven or eight so I think we are a dangerous team.

"I think we have improved our away form this season and I'm delighted we have remained unbeaten at home. That keeps the record ticking over, and over two games anything can happen. I think what we've done might change the opinion or the view of Scottish teams, particularly Celtic.

"We've come out of a group where people gave us absolutely no chance. Some said we wouldn't even get a point. But we've qualified with ten points, we've beaten Barcelona and the qualification justifies beating Barcelona."

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