Neil Lennon: Proposed Champions League revamp makes reaching group stages vital for Celtic next season

NEIL Lennon last night admitted the proposed Champions League revamp has increased the importance of Celtic qualifying for the group stages of Europe’s elite club competition in the coming seasons.

However, Lennon has backed Peter Lawwell, the Parkhead chief executive and European Clubs Association (ECA) executive board member, to fight for the best possible deal for the Glasgow club and their Scottish counterparts at talks later this month.

UEFA have suggested changing the structure of the tournament to four groups of eight from the start of the 2024/25 season following talks with the ECA, a body that represents more than 200 clubs across the continent.

The plan would, if given the go-ahead, see the top 24 teams in the Champions League get in automatically while four sides from a second-tier league would be promoted and another four clubs would qualify.

If passed, it will mean the larger clubs from the English, French, German, Italian and Spanish leagues would substantially increase their revenue from the competition while their rivals from smaller footballing nations like the Netherlands, Portugal and Scotland will find it harder to get in.

The plans, which are being driven by Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli, have been met with stiff opposition from the Premier League in England and Ligue 1 in France as they would mean increasing the number of group games from six to 14.

Lennon, who is hoping to be kept on as manager after the William Hill Scottish Cup final against Hearts on Saturday week, stressed that making it through to the group stages will be even more vital for Celtic in future if the changes are accepted.

“We’ve got to prepare for that, try to progress and be ready for that when it comes,” he said. “I think it’s really important to try to get into that upper echelon and stay in there.”

Asked if he was confident that Lawwell would get the best deal for Celtic, Lennon said: “One hundred per cent per cent yes. It’s important for Scottish clubs. Even if you think about eastern European clubs. Sometimes they don’t get a fair crack of the whip. Even the Dutch clubs.”

Lennon, who led Celtic to the knockout rounds of the Champions League for only the third time in their history back in 2012 after beating Barcelona at Parkhead in the group stages, feels the performance of Ajax this season shows that clubs from smaller countries can still challenge.

He also predicted that Amsterdam club’s progress to the last four will give Celtic belief when they enter the Champions League qualifying rounds at the start of the 2019/20 campaign.

“They’ve been great,” he said. “They have been a breath of fresh air. They play wonderful football. To go to Real Madrid and win was amazing. Then they beat Juventus away. I haven’t seen an Italian team get done like that at home in a European game for a long, long time.

“The way Ajax played against Juventus, it could have been four or five. They were absolutely outstanding. And that’s the Italian champions. So it’s got to give a lot of inspiration to a lot of clubs, including ourselves.

“Ajax have had a stellar season. They are the first team to make the semi-finals from the qualifying rounds. We have four qualifiers. It’s a big ask. You get tough draws. It’s important we keep trying to progress in the right way for that format if it does come in.”

Lennon admitted this season’s Champions League knockout rounds, which saw both Liverpool and Spurs stage astonishing comebacks against Barcelona and Ajax to reach the final in Madrid next month, had increased his desire to get Celtic back into the group stages if he is kept on as manager. “Of course it does,” he said. “It should whet the players’ appetite as well.”

The Northern Irishman also believes the contribution that Andy Robertson and Virgil van Dijk of Liverpool and Victor Wanyama of Spurs made as the Anfield and New White Hart Lane clubs made it through to the final in Madrid reflects well on the game in this country. Robertson previously played for Queen’s Park and Dundee United while Van Dijk and Wanyama both represented Celtic.

“You’ve got three players, Wanyama, Van Dijk and Robertson, who five years ago were plying their trade in Scotland now playing in the Champions League final,” said Lennon. “Scottish football’s c*** isn’t it?”

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