Lennon sets Celtic's Champions League ambitions high

Published September 14, 2013

| AFP

Celtic manager Neil Lennon has set his sights on qualifying from their tough Champions League group as they prepare to open their campaign away to Italian giants AC Milan on Wednesday.

The Hoops have been drawn in a tricky Group A alongside the Serie A side and fellow European giants Barcelona and Ajax.

However, after making it through three qualifying rounds and making an unbeaten start to their defence of their Scottish Premiership crown, confidence is high in the Celtic squad that they can cause some shocks in the tournament.

Last season the Hoops made it through the last 16 following a famous win over Barcelona in the group stages and Lennon has set his ambitions on repeating last season's heroics.

"My target is to qualify, basically. I don't care how many points we get if we could finish second -- or first -- that would be amazing," the Celtic manager said.

"But I want us to play well and compete. It's a different style and level of football with a different intensity to the game so it is a step up but the players have got the experience of last year.

"They are international players so they've played at this level for a long time some so it won't faze them."

Lennon's side warmed up for the trip to the San Siro with a 3-1 win over Hearts at Tynecastle on Saturday.

Celtic will go into the match in Milan as underdogs but Lennon says this could work in their favour.

"I think we are used to being favourites so it doesn't really affect us. Sometimes we play better when we are the underdog and play with that sort of freeness," the Celtic manager said.

"However, I wouldn't say we are massive underdogs. The way we are playing and the confidence in the squad means I think we can surprise a few people again in this group again."

Celtic, who sit second in the Scottish Premiership behind Inverness after their win at Hearts, were given a boost when new signing Teemu Pukki scored on his debut for the Parkhead club.

The Finnish striker, who signed from Schalke on transfer deadline day, had only been on the pitch for only 12 minutes when he headed home a clever flicked pass from Anthony Stokes into the net from three yards out in the 86th minute.

Stokes himself had fired past Jamie MacDonald to restore Celtic's lead in the 65th minute just seven minutes after Jason Holt had hauled Hearts level.

It was Hearts' first defeat at Tynecastle this season to leave the Edinburgh side, who started the season with a 15-point deduction for entering administration, rooted to the bottom nine points from safety.

However, Hearts manager Gary Locke felt aggrieved at Kris Commons' 19th-minute opener from the spot after the Hoops were awarded a contentious penalty when Jamie Hamill was adjudged to have deliberately blocked a Stokes header with his arm, despite the Jambos player being able to do little about it.

"I think there was only one man in the stadium who thought it was a penalty but unfortunately for us it is the most important one," Locke, whose young side had an average age of 19, said.

"You can kind of tell decisions by the reaction of the opposing team and there wasn't one Celtic player on the pitch who appealed for a penalty and none of their dugout appealed yet.

"It's another harsh decision we've had but he's made his decision and there's nothing you can do to change his mind so you've just got to accept it and that's one of the most galling things."

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