Celtic desperate to reap European rewards
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Celtic defender Charlie Mulgrew says the demise of rivals Rangers means it is more important than ever that the club qualify for the UEFA Champions League group stage.

The Hoops player and his team-mates are preparing for a crunch tie against HJK Helsinki in the third qualifying round at Parkhead on Wednesday as they bid to make the money-spinning group stages of the competition for the first time since 2008.

Twice in recent years the Parkhead club have crashed out of the Champions League at the qualifying stage after coming unstuck against Arsenal and Braga, while also losing out on a spot in the UEFA Europa League to Utrecht and Sion.

The Swiss outfit's rule-breaking did hand them a Europa League reprieve last year but failure so early in Europe is costly to the club.

And Mulgrew knows that the price of failure against Finnish champions HJK would be even more severe this year - because there will be no Old Firm money to fall back on.

With Rangers banished from the SPL after the club was demoted to the third division when it couldn't be saved from liquidation, entry into Europe's elite tournament and the millions that go with it are vital as Celtic bid to make up for the loss in attendance money caused by the absence of their fiercest rivals.

"The season will look a whole lot brighter if we can get to the Champions League proper," Scotland international Mulgrew admitted. "We've realised we're capable of playing at that level.

"We got back into the Europa League last season after Sion were kicked out and what we had with Atletico Madrid, Rennes and Udinese was basically a Champions League group by any other name. We proved we were better than the results against Braga, Utrecht and Sion had suggested.

"Now we've got the crowd as a 12th man on Wednesday. That can help us over our first hurdle."

Pre-season disadvantage
Neil Lennon's side have struggled in pre-season, having won only one of six friendly games and scoring just three times. But Mulgrew insists Celtic can take encouragement from a 1-1 draw with Italian giants Inter Milan at the weekend.

"I'm not reading too much into the friendlies but the way we played against Inter was the best since pre-season started and all we've needed has been games to get us to the stage where we're ready for HJK," the defender said.

"I don't buy into the theory that we're at a disadvantage because the Finns are halfway through their season and we've still to play a competitive match. We'll prove we're up for it by matching the other side for enthusiasm and ambition.

"You play every game, particularly one as important as HJK, as you see it and we won't be thinking about recent results."

Manager Lennon has injury worries for the match against the Finnish champions, who beat Iceland's KR Reykjavik 9-1 on aggregate in the second qualifying round.

Strikers Anthony Stokes and Kris Commons are both struggling with badly twisted ankles after picking up injuries in Saturday's match against Inter.

However, Kelvin Wilson, James Forrest, Beram Kayal and Scott Brown should be fit for the match.