CELTIC manager Neil Lennon believes potential opponents who regard his team as their preferred option in the last-16 draw of the Champions League run the risk of being on the wrong end of another odds-defying outcome.
Despite their success in finishing second in Group G behind Barcelona with a club record total of ten points, to take their place in the knockout phase of Europe’s elite tournament, Celtic continue to be considered as also-rans by the bookmakers.
Along with Galatasaray, the Scottish champions are 150-1 outsiders to lift the ultimate prize at Wembley next May and are rated 4-1 on to be eliminated in their next tie.
But Lennon, whose side are the only one to have reached the last 16 having started their campaign in the third qualifying round, insists that Celtic should be recognised as a clear and present danger to whoever they are paired with at the draw in Nyon on 20 December.
They will face one of seven group winners – Manchester United, Paris St Germain, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke or Malaga.
As a group runner-up, Celtic will be at home in the first leg of the last-16 tie on either 12/13 or 19/20 February, with the return on either 5/6 or 12/13 March.
Celtic are unbeaten in five home games in the competition so far this season, including their two qualifying ties against HJK Helsinki and Helsingborgs, and have won three times on their travels.
Lennon is confident his players are capable of winning over two legs against any opponents as they attempt to become the first Scottish team to reach the last eight of the Champions League in its current format.
“Other teams in the last 16 might say they want Celtic,” said Lennon. “But we’re not bothered about that. There are a lot of good teams in there but why would anyone want to play us? We got ten points in a group where we were bottom seeds. There are some who scraped through to the last 16 with just eight points.
“So I think we are a dangerous team and anything can happen over two games. I think we have improved our away form this season and I’m delighted we have remained unbeaten at home as well. That keeps the record ticking over and, over two games, anything can happen.”
With Celtic succeeding where both big-spending Manchester City and reigning European champions Chelsea failed in reaching the last 16, Lennon is hopeful that his team have helped improve the image of Scottish football.
“I think this might change the opinion or the view of Scottish teams, particularly Celtic,” added. “We’ve come out of a group where people gave us
absolutely no chance. Some
people were saying we wouldn’t even get a point. But we’ve gone and qualified with ten points, we have beaten Barcelona in the process and the qualification
justifies beating Barcelona.
“It’s great to look forward to the last 16 and it’s a great
achievement to get ten points. No-one else has done that from Scotland. It would have been a blow to not go through with
ten points but it’s been a great experience and we’ve got something to really get our teeth into in February.”
Celtic have already secured in excess of £20 million in Uefa prize-money and broadcasting revenue through their exploits in the tournament so far and the manager is hopeful that a slice of it will be used to reward some of his key players with improved, longer-term contracts. He is
especially keen to hold on to his leading striker Gary Hooper, who scored his fourth European goal of the campaign in Wednesday night’s 2-1 win over Spartak Moscow.
The 24-year-old, who is on the verge of a senior international call-up for England, is understood to be a January transfer target for several English
Premier League clubs.
“Hooper is someone I hang my hat on because he is a goalscorer,” said Lennon. “He took his goal brilliantly against Spartak and generally played very well. He has a great temperament and, when he really turns it on, he is a brilliant player. He was really important for us.
“I have no doubt teams will be sniffing about him in January. The same goes for Victor Wanyama. When you consider we didn’t have him on Wednesday because of suspension, it says even more about the team’s performance. Maybe reaching the last 16 will persuade all of the players to stay for a little bit longer now.”
Lennon also has possible signing targets in mind for next month’s transfer window, with a central defender and a left-sided midfielder among the items on his wish-list.
His his priority, though, is to maintain his existing squad. He said: “My budget for January may possibly change now.
“But I don’t want to change the squad too much. I don’t want to spend mega money on one player because that will only disrupt the spirit. We are looking, there are positions we would like to strengthen on the left-hand side and possibly centre half. But whether we will go and do it or not is another thing.”
Lennon has always been at pains to try to deflect the praise for Celtic’s Champions League efforts this season on to his players but he appreciates what it means to his own standing at the club. “I don’t want to get carried away with it all, but it’s a brilliant achievement and it will probably only sink in later on,” he added. “You are judged as a Celtic manager by what you do in Europe. To have this on
my CV so early in my career is marvellous, honestly. It means a hell of a lot to me.” he