Neil Lennon has gone home to Northern Ireland as Celtic chase the Champions League dream, but the Parkhead boss admits all is not well on his return to Belfast.
Irish League champions Cliftonville provided the opposition on Wednesday for the first leg of the Champions League qualifiers, with Celtic’s preparations not what they should be.
The Bhoys lost all four games on their pre-season tour to Germany and conceded 12 goals in the process in a week that also saw midfielder Victor Wanyama complete his move to Southampton.
Gary Hooper also looks set to follow the Kenyan to the Premier League, with Norwich and Hull stepping up their bids to sign Celtic’s top scorer ahead of the new season.
Lennon knows the timing of the games against Cliftonville could be better for a side still finding its feet after the summer break. He told Celtic TV, “It’s so early, it’s a harsh reality of where we are.
“We won the cup final at the end of May and we are back in on the 24th of June. It’s been staggered and a bit disjointed because we have had a lot of injuries as well.
“Matthews, Ledley, Twardzik and Hooper have hardly featured and obviously we have lost Victor. They are the ups and downs you have to cope with during pre-season, but I don’t think you’ll see us anywhere near our best for another two weeks or so.
“The German trip has been about fitness. The results have been disappointing but the real work starts now.”
As Wanyama said his goodbyes at Celtic, Lennon admitted that Hooper is likely to follow him out the exit door.
“It will be difficult to convince Gary to stay,” said Lennon. “He has not featured much in pre-season and the games start in earnest for us in Belfast on Wednesday night.
“So he’d have a bit of catching up to do and I don’t know where his mind is at the minute. Has he played his last game for Celtic? Never say never, but it’s looking more and more that way.”
Wanyama’s move, for $15 million, is a record transfer fee involving a Scottish club. The midfielder keen to thank Celtic for his time with the club.
He said, “Celtic have been good to me and the fans have been great. To be honest it was hard leaving them, but I wish them all the best.”