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'We're absolutely fine': Neil Lennon hits back at 'hysteria' after Celtic's Champions League exit

Celtic v AIK, Europa League Play-Off First Leg, Celtic Park, Tonight, 7.45pm

Not happy: Neil Lennon insists Celtic are not off colour
Not happy: Neil Lennon insists Celtic are not off colour

By Andy Newport

Defiant Neil Lennon has launched a bullish defence of his under-fire side as he insisted criticism aimed at Celtic has bordered on "hysteria".

Critics have rounded on the Hoops boss and his team since they were dumped out of the Champions League by Romanians Cluj last week.

The flak intensified after it took extra-time and a deflected James Forrest strike to see off Championship side Dunfermline in the Betfred Cup on Saturday.

But Lennon has hit out at those rushing to write Celtic off and believes his side can restore their European prestige by fighting past AIK Stockholm in the play-offs to reach the Europa League group stages.

Ahead of hosting the Swedes tonight, the former Northern Ireland international called for calm, saying: "It's not me that is creating the headlines or shouting out the criticism.

"I'm very supportive of the players and was after Cluj and Dunfermline.

"We've lost only one game - I didn't believe we deserved to and that's the harsh realities of the game.

"We're fine. We're absolutely fine. It's like everyone out there is head down. We're not. We're bullish and looking forward to the games.

"There has to be a sense of perspective.

"I can't control that but there has been a little bit of hysteria at times.

"That is the environment you're in in Glasgow sometimes.

"We've lost one game and scored three goals in it, so it's not all doom and gloom.

"We have to be bullish about things and look forward. It's a big disappointment to be out of the Champions League but the Europa League is a very good competition that hopefully we can prosper in.

"There's a narrative going around that we might be a little bit off colour. We're not.

"We're absolutely not and hopefully the players can go out and show that tomorrow.

"We have a big season ahead. We're two league games in and have scored 12 goals.

"People are entitled to criticise me and the players but there has to be a sense of balance."

Celtic have made the group stage of the Champions League or the Europa League every season since 2011 and Lennon believes it is vital his side maintain that record.

Lennon, who is still hoping he will be able to add three or four new faces to his squad before the Scottish League's September 2 transfer deadline, added: "Obviously the players want to show they have some European pedigree.

"It's important we get through. It gives us gravitas, opens the season up and gives us European football to look forward to towards Christmas, so it's an important couple of games."

Lennon has some useful contacts in Sweden but admits his former Parkhead No.2 Johan Mjallby may not be willing to divulge too much about his side's opponents.

"I'll speak to Johan before the game but he's an AIK legend as well as a Celtic legend, so he may have divided loyalties," he grinned.

"He's a very good friend of mine and my No.2 for four years during my first spell. He's coming to the game I believe so it will be good to see him.

"It will be a tough game. Swedes have a great mentality. It's vitally important that we start better than we did against Cluj.

"We've had a good look at AIK. We watched them last week and had some thorough reports on them. We're prepared and ready to go."

The Hoops are sweating on Hatem Abd Elhamed's fitness ahead of their Europa League game.

The Israeli right-back is a doubt for tonight's play-off round first-leg clash after picking up an abdominal injury in training.

Australian midfielder Tom Rogic has resumed training as he steps up his recovery from a knee injury but compatriot Daniel Arzani (knee) remains out alongside goalkeeper Scott Bain.

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