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Ajax as good as Barcelona and AC Milan, says Celtic manager Neil Lennon

celtic boss plays down european expectations

By Ronnie Esplin

Neil Lennon claims Celtic will have to be at their best against an Ajax side he believes are as good as AC Milan and Barcelona if they are to take anything from their crunch Champions League clash in the Amsterdam ArenA tonight.

Expectation is building after the Hoops' 2-1 Group H win over the Dutch champions last month at Parkhead which gave them their first three points to leapfrog Frank De Boer's side, who dropped to bottom of the section with one point after three games.

A victory over Ajax could take the Scottish champions ahead of Milan, depending on how the Italian side fare against leaders Barca, and set up a glory night at Celtic Park when the Rossoneri visit Glasgow later in the month.

However the Celtic boss, who expects Georgios Samaras, Kris Commons and Mikael Lustig to be fit, tried to dampen down those expectations.

"We always knew that the double-header against Ajax would be pivotal and it has proved to be the case," he said.

"You don't know what is round the corner but what I would say is that on their day Ajax are as good as Barcelona and Milan.

"They caused us as many problems as both those teams and I think it will be the same tomorrow night.

"I think it was important that we got some points on the board against Ajax.

"But we are under no illusions as to how difficult this will be.

"Ajax were very unfortunate not to beat Milan here.

"I think the Champions League inspires players and gets the best out of them.

"I hope that is the case for our players tomorrow night.

"If we are to progress we have to pick something up away, but we don't need to win.

"If we can get a point and beat Milan at home that gives us seven points and gives us a real chance of qualifying."

Lennon admits in-form keeper Fraser Forster will again be crucial to his side's chances and expects the big Geordie to gain his first England cap in one of the forthcoming friendlies against Chile and Germany.

Roy Hodgson's first-choice keeper Joe Hart has been dropped at Manchester City while possible replacement John Ruddy let in seven goals for Norwich against City at the weekend.

The former Celtic skipper said: "Regardless of how Fraser plays tomorrow night I think he has a good opportunity of playing (for England) anyway.

"He has been in fantastic form for the past two seasons.

"Roy Hodgson has already indicated that he might feature in some of the upcoming games.

"Whether he does or not, that's up to him but if he did get the chance he is ready for it.

"He has shown great consistency at this level and he will again be important because we are away from home.

"Whoever the opposition is, they will create chances and if we want to get something out of the game then we need Fraser to play well."

Lennon was then asked about the new Republic of Ireland coaching team, his former Parkhead boss Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane.

"I think it is tremendous," said the former Northern Ireland player.

"You have two tremendous Irish footballing men, two of the greats and I think it will be very exciting, certainly two guys with vast knowledge of the game, whether as players or managers.

"It is very interesting to see how that dynamic works.

"In Martin O'Neill you have one of the best British managers in the last 25 to 30 years and in Roy, one of the best players of his generation in that time."

While Celtic were flying to Amsterdam yesteday, Sir Alex Ferguson was helping conduct the Scottish Cup fourth-round draw in Aberdeen, where the Hoops were given a trip to Hearts.

Lennon joked that he would be "having a word" with the former Manchester United manager.

"The draw could have been kinder so I will be having a word with Sir Alex about that," he said.

Samaras (knee) and Commons (hamstring) both missed Saturday's Scottish Premiership game against Dundee United, while Lustig came off the bench having been troubled by a hip problem.

Lennon said: "They are all fit and will take part in training and we expect them to take part tomorrow night."

Celtic's cup tie was one of four all-Scottish Premiership encounters. In the others, Dundee United will host Kilmarnock, Hibernian travel to Dingwall to face Ross County and Ferguson's former club Aberdeen, will play Partick Thistle at Firhill.

Two of the clubs the former Manchester United manager played for, Falkirk and Rangers, were first out of the hat and will play at the Falkirk Stadium.

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