McDonald backs Celtic to build on their home strengths

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The Independent Online

Celtic have no intention of relying solely on their formidable home form to reach the Champions League knockout phase this season, according to their leading striker Scott McDonald. The SPL champions begin their campaign to qualify for the last 16 of European club football's top competition for the third straight year when they host Danish champions Aalborg tomorrow.

Parkhead has become a fortress for Gordon Strachan's team in recent seasons, with some of the biggest names in the European game leaving Glasgow empty-handed. In stark contrast, Celtic have an embarrassing record on the road, having claimed only a single point on their travels in the competition's current format.

With the holders Manchester United and Villarreal visiting Parkhead before Christmas, Celtic face a tough task to maintain the 100 per cent group phase home record vital to their progress in the past two seasons.

McDonald is targeting maximum points again, but he insists he and his team-mates will be trying just as hard to pick up a victory on their travels. "Every game is a must-win, the home games especially," he said yesterday. "I think that's where we've been strong in the last couple of years and that's got us through to the next stages of the Champions League. We don't want to rely on that but it would be nice to get off to a good start at home."

McDonald, an Australia international and Celtic's top scorer last season with 31 goals, admitted Aalborg were something of an unknown quantity when the Group E draw was made but he has every confidence in his manager's ability to identify and exploit their weaknesses.

"We don't know too much about Aalborg at the moment, but I'm sure as it gets closer the manager will make sure we get a good look at them," he said.

Celtic warmed up for tomorrow's match with something of a Jekyll and Hyde performance against Motherwell on Saturday. In the first half they produced, the best 45 minutes of football seen in the Scottish Premier League this term as they raced to a 4-0 lead, but in the second period they allowed their opponents to pull two goals back to set up a nervous finish.

If they manage anywhere near the level they found before half-time at Fir Park, victory tomorrow should be a formality. Indeed, it was the kind of display that would give Celtic a realistic chance of going at least one step further in the Champions League than in the last two seasons. Assuming they are still competing on other fronts, that could bring about the kind of fixture congestion that ultimately cost Rangers when they reached the Uefa Cup final last season.

McDonald believes the fact the Champions League has one fewer round than its sister competition will ensure this does not happen and insisted Celtic have the squad to cope with a four-pronged tilt at silverware.

"We made the last 16 of the Champions League last year and we came through that OK and I can't see it being any different this year," he said. "I think it's all a psychological thing and, with everything Rangers had last year, they played a lot of games near the end of the season. Whereas in the Champions League, if we were to qualify again, it would be two games at a time so I don't think it would be as many games anyway. But we've got the squad more than capable to handle it."

Shaun Maloney is one member of the squad who cannot wait to get going, having missed the last campaign because he was at Aston Villa. He said: "I was quite envious watching the Champions League when I was away and I hope to be involved in it again on Wednesday. I remember watching the Barcelona games last season and while I wouldn't say it was tough to watch, I just knew I wanted to be there, to be involved."

Maloney played his part in helping Celtic to reach the Champions League knockout phase for the first time with a victory over Manchester United just under two years ago. He said: "Even though I was left out of the starting side, which was disappointing, it was the whole night which got to me. We won and qualified for the last 16 for the first time. That stands out more than any other match. It's where I want to play again."

Celtic appear resigned to losing Shunsuke Nakamura, but they are hoping to persuade him to stay until the end of the season. The Japan midfielder, 30, has hinted he may quit the champions during the January transfer window. Nakamura's contract expires next summer, although the club have an option to extend his stay for another season. However, the player is finding travelling between Glasgow and Japan for international duty increasingly difficult and he wants to return home for the sake of his young family.

The Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell said: "Celtic would be more than happy for Shunsuke to stay here for as long as he wants and certainly we want him to remain here until the end of the season ... but his agent has intimated Shunsuke would like to return to Japan at some point."

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