IT IS the Champions League that keeps Neil Lennon engaged – often in the face of the ill-treatment meted out to him – and keeps him striving in his post as Celtic manager.
Over the next month, it will keep him engaged and on his sofa, as the competition carries on without his team, and is ratcheted up several levels.
“The challenge here for any manager is to break through the last 16,” he says. “We’ve already lost five or six of the players that defeated Barcelona. So, it’s constantly evolving and it’s difficult at the highest level to maintain that level of consistency when you’re turning over players as quickly as we are. I’ve put a lot of work into it. I’m obsessed with it, Sometimes you think you need something else in your life because you live in this football bubble. But that’s the way we are as individuals and you want to stay driven. When you start losing the anger and apathy starts to creep in, then that’s the best time to go.”
Lennon has lost none of that, nor the interest in which team might come out on top in the globe’s elite club football competition. The capacity for surprise in the last-16 ties that will begin next midweek is open to debate. “I think Bayern Munich are the favourites. Will they be pleased with the draw against Arsenal? Well, Arsenal have gone to Dortmund this season and won so that will give a huge psychological lift. Barcelona v Man City is in the balance. Before Monday night [and City’s home loss to Chelsea] everybody would have said City would have steamrollered Barcelona but I’m not so sure. I think it depends on the midfield, if their three can work against their two. But it depends on their central defenders. I think [the injured Sergio] Aguero is a big loss to City but, if [Alvaro] Negredo and [Edin] Dzeko can get at them, then that tie is in the balance.”
At least ten of the teams featuring in this year’s last-16 stage seem to be represented at the latter stages on a permanent basis. Lennon would like to see such a cartel cracked open. Money has been slewed around certain corners of the continent to make that possible. And then there are former powers who are in danger of becoming outside bets.
“PSG could be a dark horse. Atletico Madrid could also be a dark horse. I’d fancy Manchester United to beat Olympiakos. United are built for European football more than domestic football at the minute. They’ve been good at Leverkusen and Donetsk. Real Madrid of course will be in the mix and I’d expect Chelsea to beat Galatasaray. It would be good to see a team that isn’t fancied go far. Remember the 2004 final between Porto and Monaco? Nobody could have predicted that.”
That success was masterminded by a certain Jose Mourinho, who will strive – as he has for the past four years – to become the first man to win the trophy with three different clubs. Lennon would never write off the prospects of Chelsea’s Portuguese manager achieving that feat. “To go and win the Champions League [with Porto] in 2004 was incredible. To do it again with Inter Milan in 2010, nobody really expected them to win that year. So Mourinho has that aura that all great managers have. That Chelsea [win over Man City] – they were spectacular. He has counter-attacking down to a fine art.”
Mourinho also has the wind-up to a fine art. He is confrontational, aggressive, combative and unrepentantly in-your-face and yet he has never had his personal safety compromised – in any country – in the manner that Lennon has, most recently on a scouting mission at Tynecastle last week.
“The abuse was run of the mill,” Lennon offered with a certain exasperation. “I’ve never had coins or drinks thrown at me. I’ve had no controversies or confrontations this season. I’ve tried to change my persona but it’s not working. People will believe what they want to believe.”