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Time to kick on, not kick back, says Ambrose

EFE Ambrose has a number of things on his mind right now.

Efe Ambrose already has his sights firmly fixed on navigating the difficult qualifying rounds for next season's Champions League and places a higher priority on that than Nigeria's World Cup hopesPhotograph: SNS
Efe Ambrose already has his sights firmly fixed on navigating the difficult qualifying rounds for next season's Champions League and places a higher priority on that than Nigeria's World Cup hopesPhotograph: SNS

Anyone who saw his performance in the first half of last weekend's 3-3 draw at Motherwell would be entitled to suspect Celtic is not the most prominent among them. They would, in fact, be wrong.

It is perfectly true to say that almost every player in green and white that lunchtime took the field lacking a certain competitive bite, and the Nigerian centre-back took the biscuit.

Even now, more than a week on, it remains difficult to figure out just exactly what he was doing when he allowed a long ball lumped upfield by Stephen McManus to sail over his head to set up John Sutton for the opening goal just five minutes after kick-off.

A lack of concentration, in the current circumstances, is understandable. The season stopped being competitive for Celtic some time ago and their matches - today's visit of Inverness Caledonian Thistle being a prime example - are really nothing more than exercises in going through the motions, rather like a trained monkey doing somersaults in an Egyptian souk.

With a World Cup and some proper football to look forward to, it is perhaps no surprise Ambrose has permitted his focus to drift from time to time. However, events at Fir Park, when Neil Lennon's side shipped three goals in the softest of fashions, appear to have had the effect of giving these closing weeks of the campaign a fresh piquancy for the 25-year-old.

Celtic are scheduled to begin their Champions League qualifying campaign as early as July 16 and Ambrose has made it clear to everyone in the dressing-room that the last four league fixtures of the season must be looked upon as preparation for infinitely more meaningful endeavours further down the line. "The World Cup is great, but it is a national thing," Ambrose said. "This is my club and Champions League football means everything to the club and to me.

"The Champions League preparation starts now. We need to make sure we achieve qualification. We need more tactical discipline and focus because the Champions League is at hand and we need to prepare and be together.

"There will be players coming in, some may go, and there is not much time. I believe the squad is still getting better, but we are not there yet. It's not going to be easy for us, but we've been there before and we want to be there again."

As Ambrose casts an eye towards next term, though, he is clearly saddened that he will no longer have the guiding influence of Johan Mjallby within the Celtic coaching staff. The Swede is returning to his homeland to seek out new opportunities and, having been on the end of the occasional tongue-lashing from him, Mjallby's keen African student admits Lennoxtown will be a much quieter place. "He has been a great inspiration to all the defenders," Ambrose said. "I would never be what I am today without him.

"It's like a player leaving; it feels that way. He is the kind of guy who always challenges you and tells you to your face. When you make a mistake, he doesn't hide his feelings. It's his duty to make sure it doesn't happen again.

"He's not yelling at you to say you are a bad player. He wants to make you a better player and that's what it takes. When you keep pampering someone and don't tell him about his mistakes, he won't improve. I don't think it's a bad idea for Johan to take the next step now, though. I think he has all the experience he needs."

And did Mjallby "make his feelings clear" about that opening goal at Fir Park?"Of course," Ambrose said. "In the first half at Motherwell, we didn't turn up and were punished for it."

Having been 2-0 down in that match, Georgios Samaras got Celtic back on level terms with an instinctive second half goal. The Greek looks certain to leave Parkhead under freedom of contract this summer, with Neil Lennon predicting he will earn a move to a top club in one of the biggest leagues in Europe.

"He would get a top-level club, top eight in Spain, Italy or Germany," the Celtic manager said. "Somewhere like that. He has had considerable interest from bigger clubs. Should he come back here with a different club [in the Champions League], we'd look forward to that."

Samaras, of course, can be something of an enigma. He is capable of shining against the most accomplished of opposition in Europe, yet there have been plenty of performances against far lesser lights which have left both his fans and coaches exasperated.

Lennon believes, however, that he has managed to squeeze the best out of the one-time Manchester City forward. "Certainly for 18 months," Lennon said. "He had a brilliant campaign last season. I know he hasn't been near the heights he hit last year and maybe that's because he felt he wasn't getting the contract he wanted. I don't know, though. You'd have to ask him that.

"There were times, certainly early on, when he was on a sticky wicket with me. We had a good chat, ironed a few things out, and, from that time on, he was excellent. You'd be looking at £4 million or £5 million for him if he wasn't a free agent.

"He is a fantastic professional and I think he has a good three or four years left in him. He may look the playboy type, but he's far from it."

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