THE journey’s end for Neil Lennon and his Celtic team in the Champions League cannot be stated with any certainty. What can, though, is precisely what this group of players has delivered so far in the competition for club and community.
“They have given us a helluva ride, and I think they will continue to do that,” Lennon said of his players.
The beating of Barcelona in midweek has been rightly celebrated for, as Lennon nailed it, “the spectacle, the colour, the atmosphere”. Yet what the current squad, “who are not the finished article and might never be”, are bringing to Europe’s blue riband tournament is a conviction and accomplishment not inalienably linked with performing in front of crowd that seem constantly able to redefine the energising, life-affirming properties of mass euphoria and collective will.
No Celtic team before them has been able to thrive in Europe across recent time without their Parkhead umbilical cord. Consider this, though. Celtic’s record in their past five home and away games in continental competition is identical; the performances on the road probably shade those in Glasgow. The midweek display was merely a direct continuation of how Celtic had played in Catalonia, where Barcelona themselves proved a little sharper and slicker.
Moreover, this current Celtic team have an adaptability that was entirely beyond previous fine incarnations. Of the starting line-up for the Nou Camp game a fortnight ago, only three outfield players were berthed in the same roles come the end of Wednesday night. Lennon is deriving contributions from players that they themselves didn’t even know they had in them.
Kris Commons, the Celtic manager joked, had “put himself in trouble” by demonstrating a defensive work-rate hitherto hidden. With his “savvy” and “sacrifice” on the right flank, he assisted Mikael Lustig, who also discovered new inner strengths. “I have started every Champions League game and I feel I have done well in all of them so far,” said the Swede, one of only four players in that bracket, and an individual who was being written off at the start of the season after a difficult introduction to Celtic life in early 2012. “I’m a little bit surprised by that because I always thought I was quite good offensively but I think I’ve defended really well too.”
Lustig echoed the sentiment of just about all those who donned Celtic colours in stating that Wednesday’s occasion “was everything you want as a footballer” and provided him with “the best night of my career – by miles”. Even if it was a game he could not see out because of the effects of a virus that had already forced Scott Brown, Gary Hooper, James Forrest and Emilio Izaguirre on to the sidelines.
Like Lennon, though, Lustig acknowledges that no goal has been achieved – “We didn’t win the European Cup we won a game against a brilliant, brilliant team to give us seven points, but I’d rather be talking about coaching the last 16 in a month’s time,” was the Irishman’s take – while also accepting that a Barça bounce could be the makings of this Celtic team. “If we can beat them, we can beat anyone,” he said, while adding the caveat that Benfica were the “favourites” for the tie in Lisbon in a week-and-a-half.
For his part, Lennon said he has not tied himself in knots over the permutations but is “well aware” that if Barcelona take anything from the earlier kick-off away to Spartak Moscow, Celtic will go into their Stadium of Light confrontation knowing a score draw would propel them into the knock-out stages with a game – at home to Spartak – to spare. Yet, he knows that recent history in Scottish football has thrown up some glorious promise that petered out. “I know exactly that Scotland got excited after beating France in Paris [in 2007] and Rangers had seven points after three games in the Champions League that year and neither qualified,” he said. “We are very wary we could end up with nothing, which is why I have to temper expectation levels.”
Equally, Lennon is steeling himself for levels dropping on the domestic front when St Johnstone visit Celtic Park today for an encounter that inevitably will be “flatter”. “You can’t top Wednesday,” he admitted. “It is Barcelona. It is a full house. It is a European night in the Champions League and now it’s back to the SPL and there’s no doubt there will be a natural dip and it’s just trying to manage the players and getting through it.”
Getting through in the Champions League will be key to getting through the season with the current squad intact. Victor Wanyama, who scored against Barça, and Gary Hooper, who is apparently close to an England call-up, are two players certain to attract bids in the winter transfer window.
“I am relaxed about it,” Lennon said. “We are in a win-win situation. The players are predominantly on long-term contracts. If we get a huge bid in and we take it, that’s a win for us, alright we lose a player but we’ll have a huge amount of money in the kitty to go and bring someone else in. John [Park, Celtic chief scout] is always working in the background on that scenario. If we get through to the last 16, then I don’t think any player will want to leave. Why go in January when you have got so much to play for? I am hoping that scenario does arise but we still have a huge amount of work to do.”
Lennon believes there was something fated about so momentous a victory for the club as the “miracle” in midweek coming only a day after the club had held a special service to commemorate exactly 125 years since the meeting that made Celtic happen.
“I just felt something was in the air when I was at the anniversary night at St Mary’s,” he said. “The atmosphere and the ambience, for me, was a reflection on the history of the club. You do think about it, the whole story, and I got all that at the ceremony. It was wonderful and I got a wee bit of a kick out of it and ended up thinking: could it be our night tomorrow night?”
Celtic have always had a flair for the dramatic. But football’s inequalities do not often allow such romantic ideals to be applied to facing the world’s best.
Romance is now reserved for raucousness from the stands, and rank-outsider results rendered by remarkable application. It is a combination that retains the ability to intoxicate and reverberate through the times.