Vennegoor debut signals Strachan's high ambitions

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The Independent Online

Gordon Strachan admitted yesterday that his Celtic side that romped to the Scottish Premier League title by 17 points last season had been "cobbled together" and had "no right" to win the league by so many points. But win it they did, with six games to spare, thereby propelling them straight into the group stages of this season's Champions' League, where Strachan's former side, Manchester United, and his sometime foe, Sir Alex Ferguson, lie among their opponents.

Before that comes the serious business of getting their title defence on track, and it is a measure of Celtic and Strachan's ambition that he will soon be handing a debut to his new £3.4m Dutch international striker, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, whose wages, at a reported £30,000 a week, constitute a major investment north of the border.

The biggest name in the game could make his bow as early as today in the home game against Hibernian, as could Lee Naylor, the England Under-21 left-back who completed his move from Wolverhampton Wanderers this week. There is still a possibility that Strachan could add Thomas Gravesen to his squad before the transfer window closes, with the midfielder currently in Denmark weighing up his options. Newcastle also want him, but the attraction of immediate Champions' League football with Celtic will be a pull if a satisfactory deal can be reached on his pay.

"The players who played last year were cobbled together quickly of older, younger players, people on frees, players on Bosmans, whatever," Strachan said. "That group last year had no right to win the championship by so many points. We thank them for giving us the opportunity to sit and talk about playing Manchester United."

He played down talk that he and Ferguson still bear animosity towards each other, as seemed apparent many times in a professional relationship that took in Aberdeen and United.

"To put it in perspective, the last time we saw each other we spoke for 40 minutes about football, families and other things." Of the upcoming matches against United, he added: "We have to be at our best and come up with ways of playing at our maximum."

Second-placed Celtic are one of five SPL clubs with seven points, as are Hearts, who host Inverness today in the wake of failing to make the Champions' League.

Rangers, the unbeaten League leaders, on eight points, travel to Kilmarnock tomorrow.

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