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Irish defender O'Connell ready to nail down place at Celtic after 'special' night against Barcelona

The Cork-born centre-half insists he is focused on his club career right now amid talk of a call-up to Ireland’s senior squad.

O'Connell is on the verge of a break-out season at Celtic.
O'Connell is on the verge of a break-out season at Celtic.
Image: PA Wire/Press Association Images

EOGHAN O’CONNELL MAY have just broken into the Celtic’s first team but he insists the hard work has only begun.

The 20-year-old Irish defender has earned praise from new Hoops boss Brendan Rodgers and impressed enough to start in last week’s Champions League third qualifying round first leg tie against Astana.

Cork native O’Connell kept his place in the starting line-up for this evening’s International Champions Cup meeting with Barcelona in Dublin and played well before being substituted with six team-mates at half-time as the Spanish champions won out 3-1.

“It was special for me, being home in Ireland and with my family coming out to watch,” O’Connell said after the game. “It was nice for me to be able to come back to Ireland and play with Celtic so I really enjoyed it.”

The youngster will be hoping to get the nod once against Kazakhstan’s domestic champions at Celtic Park on Wednesday, and added that his main objective this term is to become a regular in the Celtic back-line.

“I just want to stake a claim for a place in the team and then hold it down” he said.

“That’s all I’ll be trying to do. I have to keep working hard trying to improve and impress from there. Let’s see where that takes me.

I always had belief in myself that I could play if called upon. I had a tough end to last season with my loan spell at Cork being cut short but I came back and worked very hard. Since then, it’s gone my way and I’ve got the opportunity.

“Thankfully, it’s going well and long may it continue.”

O’Connell joined his hometown club on loan at the start of the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division season and made five appearances before returning to Celtic early due to an injury.

He was thankful of the opportunity to play senior football, however, and says he would love to see the Leesiders wrestle the title from Dundalk.

“I really enjoyed it,” he says. “I was disappointed it was cut short but that’s football. I still keep in contact with a lot of the lads and hopefully they will go on and win the league and keep doing well in Europe.”

Celtic v Barcelona - 2016 International Champions Cup - Aviva Stadium Rodgers and Barcelona boss Luis Enrique shake hands. Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Rodgers spoke highly of O’Connell’s latest display during the post-match press conference.

“Just look at his performance tonight, I thought he was excellent.” he said. “He’s come in against Leicester, a fast team, and did well. He played under pressure on Wednesday night and came through it well. There’s a few areas he could improve on but he’s young he’ll improve.

“He coped very well tonight, he’s very calm. What I like about Eoghan is he knows the game, physically he can go and win headers, he can dominate, he’s calm in possession.

“I think he was excellent tonight. There are good players in Ireland, there always have been. But he’s ready to learn. From what I can see so far he’ll do well.”

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill has this week talked about freshening up his squad with younger players ahead of the World Cup qualifiers in September.

O’Connell, an U21 international, is one of several players O’Neill plans to go see in the near future, but he isn’t getting too far ahead of himself.

Look, it’s still very early and I haven’t even played that many games for Celtic. I’ve only played one competitive game for them this season, and a lot of that talk is speculation.

“I’ll just be working as hard as I can. If it comes I’ll be delighted but it’s not something I’m too worried about.”

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Ben Blake

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