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Second string capable of tying league rivals in knots

CELTIC find themselves in a state of flux.

Ledley feels it is disrespectful of managers to suggest that fielding less prominent members of the Celtic squad will weaken the side. Picture: SNS
Ledley feels it is disrespectful of managers to suggest that fielding less prominent members of the Celtic squad will weaken the side. Picture: SNS

The Clydesdale Bank Premier League title has been retained and it is still three weeks until their appearance in the William Hill Scottish Cup final, where victory over Hibernian would deliver a first domestic double since 2007. The intervening period will matter little for Neil Lennon's side beyond established first-team figures keeping themselves ticking over, and fringe players putting in one last effort to try to make the squad for Hampden.

For other clubs, though, the closing weeks of the league season are loaded with significance. The third and final berth in next season's Europa League qualifying rounds is still up for grabs – Hibernian and Motherwell have already claimed the other two – and four sides still have hopes of making it theirs. With that in mind, some of those involved are taking a closer than normal look at the team lines Lennon chooses to submit in the coming weeks. The Celtic manager has already stated he would happily sacrifice league points to keep his squad fresh both for the final and next season's Champions League qualifying adventure that begins in mid-July, allowing a handful of players to take an early holiday last week with another batch excused from duty this week.

That has sparked alarm in some camps that Celtic will field weakened teams in their forthcoming games against Ross County on Sunday, St Johnstone the weekend after, and then Dundee United in the final match of the season, giving those clubs a possible advantage in the race to finish third.

Joe Ledley, however, finds such talk disrespectful. One of those to benefit from a holiday in the sun last week, the Welshman believes that Celtic's squad is so strong that those who could come in to fill the jerseys of more established figures – as Thomas Rogne, Tom Rogic and Biram Kayal did last week – will not weaken the effectiveness of the line-up. To suggest otherwise, says Ledley, would be wrong.

"I don't think we should be criticised [for rotating the squad]," said the midfielder. "If they think the players out there on the pitch are not good enough then that's a bit disrespectful from the other managers. I don't think any manager should say we aren't putting out a strong team."

That was a view shared by Steve Lomas, the St Johnstone manager who takes his team to Celtic Park next weekend. "Whatever team Neil puts out is capable of going anywhere and winning so I've no problems with it," said the Northern Irishman. "They've earned the right to do what they want."

That is perhaps a little harder to say in hindsight, though. Terry Butcher is one of those managers who have questioned Lennon's preference for rotating his first-team squad, a view which is coloured by the blur of green and white which dismantled his Inverness Caledonian Thistle side in the first match after the split. Celtic fielded the strongest side available and won 4-1 to secure the title.

Butcher did not argue about the prospective strength of a recast Celtic side – "A second string team would survive comfortably in the SPL" – but he was more pointed about the advantage others might gain should they not have to face a team of Parkhead regulars. "It is disappointing that we played Celtic first up and they had a full strength side going for the title," said the Inverness manager. "They were phenomenal against us after scoring the first goal and I don't think many teams could have lived with them."

It is perhaps a reminder of the influence Celtic can still exert over the top flight even when their own ambitions lie elsewhere. Ledley was also reminded of the club's global appeal last week when he headed to Dubai, only to bump into a fan who was delighted to get the chance to have a chinwag with one of his heroes. The message that Celtic have had a season to remember came through loud and clear once more. "People around the world have recognised us, especially in the Champions League with the way we played, which was brilliant," added Ledley.

Ledley was helping to promote ESPN's coverage of Ross County versus Celtic this Sunday.

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