European exit forces Celtic to face their worst fears

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The Independent Online

The Celtic midfielder Alan Thompson believes that fears that Martin O'Neill might have managed Celtic in Europe for the final time will prove unfounded.

The Celtic midfielder Alan Thompson believes that fears that Martin O'Neill might have managed Celtic in Europe for the final time will prove unfounded.

The Hoops were eliminated from Europe before Christmas when Tuesday night's 0-0 draw at home to Milan in the Champions' League was not enough to secure a consolation spot in the Uefa Cup.

O'Neill admitted afterwards it was time to "take stock" as a squad of players who had reached the Uefa Cup final 18 months ago appeared to be nearing the end of its shelf life.

Inevitably it has also been suggested that the manager might decide that after five years at Parkhead, it might soon be time to take on a challenge elsewhere, with the Eng- lish Premiership the most likely destination.

But Thompson insisted that was not what he was expecting to happen. He said: "I would be surprised. I don't think he has chucked it at any other job he has been at, and I can't see him doing it now."

With Rangers likely to be in the Uefa Cup after Christmas, Celtic's priority will be to hang on to their Premier League title. And Thompson said he expected O'Neill to return to the dressing room with his trademark vigour and enthusiasm.

He said: "He will try and rally us. We have a big game on Sunday at Dunfermline, and that is where he comes into his own. It is up to us to knuckle down now, though it will be tough as Eur- ope has gone for the season. But we have got the league to try and win."

With Henrik Larsson having left in the summer for Barcelona - whose defeat at Shakhtar Donetsk cost Celtic dearly on Tuesday night - the team which has performed so well at home and abroad over the past three seasons is already changing.

Established players are now the wrong side of 30 and newcomers Henri Camara and Juninho have failed to make much of an impact.

But Thompson insisted there was plenty of hope for the future and cited teenager Aiden McGeady, who had been outstanding against the Italians, as a prime example.

He said: "We do have something left in us. We're not getting any younger, but we have people coming in like Aiden. Aiden has played well over a period of time.

"We see it every day in training how good he is - and there is more of that to come. Maybe with one or two additions next month it might just give us the boost we need."

O'Neill had been quick to point out that though Celtic had finished bottom of Group F they had still managed to earn draws against Milan and Barcelona. It was the defeat in the Ukraine which ended up costing them, but Thompson insisted Shakhtar had been under-estimated by many.

He said: "When the group was drawn, some people thought 'Take something off Milan and Barcelona and win your two games against Shakhtar'. I don't think they realised what a good team Shakhtar are.

"It was always going to be tough. We gave it our best shot and it wasn't good enough. But we gave it a go, and we'll take the positives from it, knuckle down and try to retain the championship. We won't give it up without a fight. It will be a long hard season from now on in, but we'll do all we can to make sure we win the title."

However, Neil Lennon fears time may start to catch up with a number of Celtic players. The former Northern Ireland international is approaching veteran status, and striker Chris Sutton is not far behind.

He said: "We have been together for so long now, and it has been a good ride. It might just be the beginning of the end for this team, but you never know. I am 34 in June, and Sutty is in his mid-thirties as well.

"There are some good young players coming through and maybe this is the time for some new young faces to come in."

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