Euro Football

Celtic boss Neil Lennon tells Leigh Griffiths to target Euro qualifiers

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Neil Lennon has told Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths that aiming for Scotland’s European Championship qualifying squads for the June games against Cyprus and Belgium is a realistic ambition.

Griffiths has adhered to a structured individual training programme over the last month and is now up to twice daily sessions in the gym. It is expected that a full return to first-team training will come this week.

The 28-year-old has not played since December 8 after Celtic allowed him to take time out in order to seek professional help for personal issues. 

In the aftermath of Celtic’s Scottish Cup semi-final win over Aberdeen last weekend Lennon said it was possible for Griffiths to push himself towards a Cup final place and the likelihood is that he would need to have had some game time for the Parkhead side in order to be in contention for a Scotland shirt.

In Griffiths’ favour is the lack of genuine options for Scotland in the forward role; Steven Naismith has been out since the end of February with a knee injury, there are question marks over Steven Fletcher’s 
availability and Oli McBurnie has failed to set the heather alight in that role. 

Neil Lennon and Tim Williamson

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Lennon is now looking for the striker to take some responsibility for getting himself into optimum shape as he targets the international games.

“He is at his peak and he still has plenty to offer,” said Lennon. “That is down to him. It looks like he wants it so it is up to him to do the hard yards now.

“He is getting there. I think he’ll be fit for the qualifiers. It would do him good. It would keep him ticking over. He has a bit of work still to do. It would be nice for Scotland and it would be nice for me to have a quality striker added to the one I’ve got. He won’t be a million miles away.

“He is in training twice a day on his own at the minute. He still has to be integrated into the group so he is still a week or two away from that. It is a slow, meticulous routine of conditioning so he doesn’t break down again.”

It will be interesting to see just who will be responsible for picking the Scotland squads for those games against Cyprus and Belgium. Following the ignominious way Alex McLeish was sacked, all eyes are on the SFA to see who is put in place, temporarily or otherwise, for the qualifiers.

Lennon has had his own question marks to deal with these past few months. There has been a different face to the Celtic manager since assuming the role following the swift exit of Brendan Rodgers in February but the 47-year-old appeared to be more relaxed last week as he prepared to take the Parkhead side back to Easter Road today.

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Indeed, the very fact Lennon is factoring in the possibility Griffiths may get game time with Scotland before returning to Celtic for the beginning of pre-season training suggests the interim manager believes he will be the one overseeing Celtic’s progression towards the Champions League qualifiers.

“The qualifier [against Belgium] is the 11th and we are back on the 17th,” said Lennon. “So there is no reason why he can’t go and play for Scotland and then come back and start training with us. He has missed a lot of football and it is not through a bad injury or anything like that. He needs to catch up.”

Arguably, the pinnacle of Griffiths’ career came in a Scotland shirt almost two years ago when Scotland came within minutes of humbling England at Hampden. Those two free-kicks against England were described by Griffiths as “giving him goosebumps” whenever he watched them back and Lennon has encouraged the player to push himself for a return to that standard.

Those goals against Joe Hart were telling too from the point of view that they seemed to dispel a suspicion about Griffiths, perhaps shared by his then club manager, about his suitability to play and perform at that level. 

“He’s young enough to do it,” said Lennon. “He’s only 28. He’s had, what, a year, out? He’s had a rest now and he needs to get back to work. 

“He scores the type of goals that other strikers don’t get, he sniffs them out. You can’t buy that. It’s natural. When we bought him [in 2014], he always hit the target, he always wanted to score goals, he was good in the air, from set-plays he was decent and he was a really good finisher as well. I don’t think you lose that, so there’s plenty of scope for him to come back and join the party again.

“He scored in the Champions League against Anderlecht. We’re not saying he’s top, top but he’s a top-quality striker. He was at his peak there, he got 40 goals in one season. That’s quite a significant return. He’s got the game, there’s no question of that, he just needs to get back in the right condition again.

“I don’t think we have scored enough goals this season in the league compared to other seasons, but I understand why when you are losing a 25-30 goal striker. He is capable of doing that but he needs to get back to doing that, and when he was scoring his goals against England, because he looked a right good player then.”
 

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