Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Efe Ambrose answers Celtic's emergency call

Celtic training ahead of Wednesday nights Champions League 2nd Qual, 1st Leg game against Cliftonville

Celtic's Efe Ambrose
Celtic training ahead of Wednesday nights Champions League 2nd Qual, 1st Leg game against Cliftonville Celtic's Efe Ambrose

Celtic's defensive injury crisis ahead of their Champions League qualifier against Cliftonville at Solitude tomorrow night has led to an early recall to action for Efe Ambrose.

The Nigeria defender was given extra time off following the Confederations Cup.

However, with defenders Adam Matthews, Charlie Mulgrew and Virgil van Dijk injured, plus Steven Mouyokolo signed but not available until the second leg next week, manager Neil Lennon has called upon the services of Ambrose earlier than expected.

"Efe Ambrose is in contention," said the Northern Irishman, who has also seen Victor Wanyama leave for Southampton.

"He looks great, he looks in good condition. These guys play almost 12 months a year. He has had a couple of weeks off.

"He had a heavy schedule with the Confederations Cup, had a holiday, did a little bit of training in Nigeria and then joined us yesterday and he looks fine.

"It probably would have been ideal for him to do a little bit of conditioning work but looking at him yesterday he looks in fine fettle."

Midfielder Joe Ledley and striker Gary Hooper are also out with injuries with the latter expected by Lennon to leave the Scottish champions in the next week.

Norwich were reported to have put a deadline of yesterday on their £4million bid for the 25-year-old Englishman while QPR boss Harry Redknapp indicated the club were not close to bringing Hooper to Loftus Road, albeit he is a player firmly on their radar.

He told Sky Sports News: "Philip Beard (chief executive) has made an enquiry but I don't honestly know where we're at.

"We're certainly not close to it at the moment.

"He's a player we like but it's whether they want to sell him or whether we can pay enough money for him - basically whether there's a deal to be done between the two clubs.

"If not, we move on from there."

Lennon said: "There are a couple of clubs interested and talks are ongoing but there is no confirmation on anything yet.

"I expect it to go ahead. I don't know what club or what price but I would expect it to be concluded over the next week or two."

Asked about reports that he is interested in former Barcelona player Javier Saviola, the former Celtic skipper said: "There is nothing in that at all."

Having beaten Barcelona in last season's competition, Lennon concedes that a shock defeat to the Northern Irish champions cannot be ruled out.

He said: "Anything can happen in football.

"It is a dangerous game and it is one we are not taking lightly. We will have to be at our best. I know it is early and I know some of the players won't be at their best but we will have to play very well to get a result tomorrow.

"Cliftonville will be highly motivated but the Champions League is so important to us as well.

"The difficulty is it comes so early. It is our first competitive game, we have only been back two and a half weeks and some players less than that, so it is a big ask but that is the reality."

The friendship and cultural similarities between both clubs and their respective fans means there should be little animosity at the north Belfast ground which has had its capacity increased to around 5,000 but Lennon does not want the night to become too friendly.

"We have a great relationship with Cliftonville but once the whistle blows we will try to win the game," he said.

"The atmosphere should be great, as long as it doesn't turn into a party-type atmosphere and the players get caught up with that.

"We are here to do a job and try to win the game or try to take some sort of result back to Glasgow next week."

Cliftonville v Celtic: Key battles

Celtic begin another European adventure when they take on Northern Ireland champions Cliftonville in the second qualifying round of the Champions League.

Press Association Sport looks at the areas which could determine the outcome at Solitude.

MARC SMYTH v GEORGIOS SAMARAS

A defender with some pedigree, Smyth scored the winning penalty for Airdrie United in the 2008 Scottish Challenge Cup final against Ross County. The 30-year-old must call on all his experience if he is to have any chance of keeping Samaras quiet.

With a question mark hanging over Gary Hooper's future at the club, the onus will be on Samaras to come up with the goods in front of goal. The striker was on target during last year's qualifiers against HJK Helsinki and Helsingborg and will be hoping for a repeat this time.

BARRY JOHNSTON v KRIS COMMONS

Holding midfielder Johnston is in his third spell with Cliftonville and has scored in European qualification before. Similar exploits would be welcome against Celtic, but Johnston serves Cliftonville best by destroying the moves of the opposition.

Commons was one of Celtic's better performers last season and will be hoping to top those displays this term. The attacking midfielder weighed in with 19 goals but his ability to create opportunities for team-mates will be just as important as his own goal threat.

LIAM BOYCE v KELVIN WILSON

Last season's leading scorer in the Northern Irish top flight, Boyce returned to Solitude in January 2012 following a failed move to the Bundesliga with Werder Bremen. On home soil he was prolific once again, scoring 29 goals to seal the title last term.

With Efe Ambrose having had just one day's training and Charlie Mulgrew and Virgil van Dijk both injured, Wilson will be called upon to ensure the Hoops' defence is rock-solid. However, with 12 goals conceded in pre-season matches, an improvement will be needed in terms of the rearguard.