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Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers acknowledges Kilmarnock as title rivals

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'Have Kilmarnock earned the right to be viewed as genuine contenders? Well, why not!': Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers acknowledges Steve Clarke's side as title rivals ahead of clashKilmarnock lead the Scottish Premiership ahead of this weekend's actionThe Ayrshire side, who have 31 points from 16 games, go to Celtic on SaturdayDefending champions Celtic are one point back with two matches in handAnd Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers has acknowledged Killie as genuine rivals

Brendan Rodgers says Kilmarnock have earned the right to be viewed as genuine title contenders as he prepares to welcome the surprise Premiership leaders to Celtic Park on Saturday.

The Parkhead manager also insisted that Leicester City's shock 2016 Premier League triumph has proved that the seemingly impossible can happen in football.

Killie major shareholder Billy Bowie on Friday cited the Foxes' remarkable title-winning campaign, telling Sportsmail he believes Steve Clarke's side can follow in their footsteps.

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers has acknowledged that Kilmarnock are genuine title rivals

And Rodgers, who is yet to beat Clarke in their four domestic meetings, admits he has been impressed by the table-topping Ayrshire side. 'Leicester showed, at odds of 5,000-1, that it can be done,' he said. 'What Leicester did was make the impossible possible.

'Have Kilmarnock earned the right to be viewed as genuine title contenders? Well, why not!

'I think that's what they will think themselves if they can continue with that kind of consistency.

'I think when there are ten games to go (in a league season), you look closer at it because then there's a different pressure.

'Everything else that comes into play is totally different and new if you have not been in that situation before.

'But you can't argue with what Kilmarnock have done over a sustained period, which has been absolutely brilliant.

'They deserve all the credit they get and the biggest credit you can give them is that it's not been by accident. It has been a consistent run over the last year or so.'

Kilmarnock lead the Scottish Premiership after winning nine of their 16 games so far this term

Celtic are still without defender Dedryck Boyata, who has a hamstring injury, as the champions aim to bounce back from a disappointing 1-1 draw at Motherwell in midweek.

But Rodgers welcomes back Mikael Lustig who has recovered from a slight knock, while captain Scott Brown had no reaction to his first start since a month out with a knee injury.

Striker Leigh Griffiths was missing from training on Friday but is expected to be available, with Rodgers saying: 'He had an issue but he will be okay.'

Injured defender Kristoffer Ajer starts back training with the squad next week but Rodgers says the Norwegian will not make next Thursday's Europa League crunch match against Red Bull Salzburg.

'That game will be too soon for Kris,' said Rodgers, who has been linked with a move for Groningen's Samir Memisevic but insisted on Friday that he had never heard of the Bosnian defender.

'Kris will train and then, hopefully, he will be ready to come back in the next few weeks.'

How the Scottish Premiership looks ahead of this weekend's matches, including Celtic vs Killie

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