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Lennon plots Champions League return

NEIL Lennon has set his sights on a Champions League return for Celtic on the back of clinching the SPL title at Kilmarnock on Saturday.

The visitors turned in a thrilling performance to sweep their hosts aside 6-0, but everyone at Celtic knows that it’s in Europe that the club is judged.

Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan both established Celtic Park as one of the most difficult venues on the continent, with Manchester United, AC Milan, Lyon and Juventus all turned over in front of a packed Parkhead stadium.

This season’s Europa League campaign with Atletico Madrid, Udinese and Rennes provided an appetiser to the main event, with Lennon planning a return to the elite European competition.

Celtic face two qualifiers from the champions route to reach the Champions League proper, meaning that they will avoid facing a top club from England, Spain, Italy or Germany.

Reaching the group stage could bring in close to €20m with Lennon looking to cut his squad to be ready for the challenge.

“There’s no doubt we have to trim the squad a little bit,” the Celtic boss said. “We will look to do that and maybe enhance the squad with two or three players of undoubted quality.

“We want to improve the club’s status in Europe if we can but again, that’s a hard thing to do. Looking at the Champions League qualifiers, it will be important now to get into the group stages.

“We will have to look at the close-season programme and our pre-season and try to get a recipe to get that right for the qualifiers because it would enhance the season no end and give these players a huge shot in the arm in terms of their own development.”

Celtic currently have eight players out on loan, including Daryl Murphy and Darren O’Dea, and it’s highly unlikely that any of them have a future at the club.

Morten Rasmussen and Efrain Juarez returned in January from loan spells, with the £4m duo no longer in Lennon’s plans.

Lennon knows the history of Celtic as well as any previous manager, and he felt that Saturday’s triumph ended his probationary time in charge of the club.

“I am only young in this job,” he added. “It’s a huge job with huge expectations but I feel vindicated now. I felt as if I was on probation. Now I feel the Celtic manager.

On Sunday, Celtic face Hearts in the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup.