WITH so much of the focus during the build-up to Celtic’s rematch with Lazio being on the safety of their fans in Rome amid fears they may be targeted by the notorious ultra element of the home support, the threat to their Europa League hopes has almost been ignored.

Reaching the knockout rounds of the competition for the third year running is within touching distance for the Parkhead club, who are a point clear at the top of Group E after three games, following their draw with Rennes away and wins over Cluj and Lazio at home.

If they prevail on Italian soil for the first time in their entire history in the Stadio Olimpico this evening and Cluj defeat Rennes in Romania they will progress to the last 32 with two matches to spare.


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This meeting with Simone Inzaghi’s side, however, is the most difficult Neil Lennon’s team have faced to date in their campaign by a distance.

Their hosts are smarting from their agonising 2-1 defeat in Glasgow a fortnight ago, when a late Christopher Jullien goal coupled with two exceptional Fraser Forester saves, denied them a result. They will be hell bent on avenging that reverse and keeping alive their qualification chances.

Lennon admitted this game will be a step up on what has gone before after arriving at the famous arena to do his pre-match media duties. However, the magnitude of the challenge facing his charges, who are unbeaten away from home in continental competition in five outings, doesn’t daunt him. He believes his men are capable of continuing their run and recording a famous result.

“It’s the stiffest test of the group, there’s no question of that,” he said. “We’re in Italy and our record here, as people keep reminding me, isn’t great. Records are there to be changed and to be broken. We are in good form, but we know it’s going to be a big ask.

“But we have been looking forward to this game for a while now. It’s a great challenge for us and for the players. These are the games we want. We relish it and I think the players are excited about it and with the form we’re in we go into it with a certain amount of confidence as well. We know it’ll take a lot of energy and good application and no shortage of quality.

“We have good experience. We have international players, we have players who have played Champions League and players who have played at a high level and there’s good blend of youth and experience there. I don’t think they will be fazed by it.


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“But we know it’s a real quality side who are on form. We turned them over in Glasgow so they will maybe want to right that. We will be ready. I think the players have prepared well for this one. I just hope we will be strong.

“We have had a lot of nice things said about us over the last few weeks from different sections of the footballing world, but it’s important we maintain our standards and don’t get carried away with anything.”

The fans who have travelled early to the Eternal City spent yesterday taking in the sights, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain and the Vatican, enjoying the local cuisine in the pavement cafes and ristorantes, and downing a Peroni or two, without a hint of the trouble which had been widely anticipated.

Lennon feels having a 9,000-strong support inside a ground which will have sections closed off – Lazio were punished by UEFA for their fans’ racist chanting against Rennes last month – will boost Celtic’s chances of getting a result. “We’re going to bring a big crowd out with us which is great,” he said. “Celtic fans are always optimistic no matter who we play. We are here to be professional and play as hard and tough as we can and hope we can come out the right side of it.”

The Northern Irishman feels the surroundings will only inspire Scott Brown and his team mates. “They must do,” he said. “It’s a great amphitheatre. The stadium’s beautiful. I didn’t realise how modern it was. And the pitch looks fine so I’m sure we’ll get a huge lift from that, and from the quality of opponent as well. That increases your senses and heightens you concentration levels as well.”

Lennon - who will be without Boli Bolingoli after the left back failed to recover from the hamstring strain he picked up on Saturday and will have to field either Jonny Hayes or Greg Taylor at left back – will make tactical changes.


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“I don’t think we can be as aggressive early on as we usually like to press,” he said. “It’s something we’ll think about and adapt as we go through the game. We come here trying to be positive and trying to get a positive result. But we know how dangerous Lazio are. They’re in good form, really good form now in Serie A. I don’t know how seriously they will take this game, but I imagine they will be pretty strong tomorrow night and want to get back into the group.”

Elsewhere, Lennon admitted he was pleased that Callum McGregor’s future has been sorted out with the Scotland midfielder, who had attracted interest from Leicester in the summer, agreeing a five year contact extension yesterday.

“I think it’ll ease his mind and put to bed any speculation about him, but it hasn’t affected his performances,” he said. It’s great for us and great for the group that he committed and he’s deserved it.

“He’s only going to get better. His best years are ahead of him . He’s going to be pivotal in how we play against Lazio.”