THE juxtaposition always tickles. From Milan to Morton. The Greenock side in the League Cup this Tuesday, the Italian behemoths in the Champions League last Wednesday. Yet Celtic manager Neil Lennon does not see these polar opposite football assignments in isolation.
“We are used to that now,” he says. “As a player you get used to it and we had the same thing last year. You might be playing Spartak Moscow and then Arbroath in the cup. It’s part of our domestic treble and it’s a trophy I have never won as a manager and Morton will come to play and compete. It will be a huge game for them and they deserve respect. I don’t want to get all the plaudits and then lose to Morton. All the plaudits for playing so well on Wednesday [in the 2-0 defeat by AC Milan] and have an adverse result on Tuesday night. I want to keep this little bit of momentum going.”
The Irishman says he is “not getting carried away” with all the favourable comments garnered by his team’s performance at San Siro for one simple reason: “We still lost.” Yet his players’ belief and ability to impose themselves in one of Europe’s most forbidding arenas generates optimism that points can be won in a section which also contains Barcelona and Ajax. Just perhaps not when the Catalan glitterati come calling in nine days’ time, irrespective of the fabled win over them at Celtic Park last November. And if Celtic find themselves pointless after their first two Group H encounters, qualification prospects will take a hefty dunt. On the four occasions that Scottish teams have made the last 16 they have always posted a win by the conclusion of their second tie.
“Barcelona are playing very well by the sounds of things,” Lennon says. “To beat Ajax 4-0 is no mean feat. So there’s a lot of pressure and a lot more riding on this game. I don’t think you can really set your stall out to take points against Barcelona but you can come up with some sort of plan to play against them and see where it takes you.
“[Chief scout] John Park was at their game the other night but I have not spoken to him yet. They have conceded some goals in the league this year but they are winning games and scoring a lot of goals as Barcelona tend to, particularly at the start of the season. They will be hurting after last year with the way they went out – they looked more or less dead on their feet. Neymar has given them a little bit of freshness in their attacking line-up.
“This is Barcelona we are talking about. For me, they have been the best club side in the last 25 years. That team from 2007 onwards and any team with Messi in it is going to carry some threat. We will change the way we have played from the other night. We won’t have anywhere near the same amount of possession. You just have to accept that and make the most of what you have and how you go about trying to contain them.”
Going down to two cruel counters in the closing minutes against AC Milan made for an encounter that was the reverse of Celtic’s victory over Barcelona last season.
“I watched the second-half in the plane on the way back. The first 25 minutes of it was superb in terms of the way we played and the chances we created. It’s just disappointing because we gave so much to the game and we looked a Champions League team, if you want to describe us as that. You don’t know they’re going to score but there’s always that risk. Everyone says ‘you’ve got to score when you’re on the up’ and that is true. Because you can lose a game to a deflection. But you can lose any game that way – we’ve lost SPL games like that. There’s always that concern in the back of your mind, but the way we were playing I was comfortable.
“I don’t want this team to be gallant losers who get plaudits for losing. I want them to win and get what they deserve out of games. There are going to be times, like Barca here last season, when you probably don’t deserve to win the game and you win it. I said that after that game – if you’re looking at the stats and all that sort of rubbish, we got a lot of luck on the night. But we didn’t get the luck on the night on Wednesday. But, as a manager, you have to look at the overall performance. Can we replicate that in future games in the competition? I don’t know is the answer but I’m hoping that we can.”
And, for Lennon, the assurance his team exhibited on the most exalted stage in midweek was not a new phenomenon.
“I felt in the second half in Moscow last year [in a 3-2 win] and the Moscow game at home [a 2-1 win] we were certainly good enough to be in that company. Benfica at home [in the first game] was really a case of putting the feelers out. We drew 0-0 and we all weren’t sure where we were.
“The only disappointing game we had last year was Benfica away [a 2-1 defeat]. We negotiated the play-offs, we did what we had to do, certainly the Karagandy game at home we looked a very good side. Then we played very well on Wednesday so there’s a good mentality about the team. We played bravely, we didn’t sit on or hold on for anything. We matched them in more or less every department. And that says a lot about the way we’ve developed.”
Celtic have developed to the point where Lennon felt sufficiently comfortable to adopt the same approach at San Siro as he did at Tynecastle the previous weekend. “I was looking at the players who were in form and playing well. We have used the formation for the majority of the season and people are saying we should have shut up shop but it’s impossible to do that. I didn’t think I had the options to do that anyway. We were playing well, so I didn’t feel the need to change the system. The personnel was like for like.”