CELTIC manager Neil Lennon admits that he took great satisfaction in proving wrong the sceptics who doubted his team could rise to the big occasion, when they completed their Champions League group campaign.
Lennon’s side have faced accusations that they cannot handle big games following Hampden cup defeats to Ross County, Rangers and Kilmarnock and Hearts, and their failure to capitalise on their advantage in the final stages of the 2011 title race. But Celtic, who have won one Clydesdale Bank Premier League and a Scottish Cup in Lennon’s two full seasons in charge, proved the majority of Europe wrong by qualifying for the Champions League knockout stages.
They followed victory over Barcelona with a tense 2-1 win against Spartak Moscow on Wednesday night, with Kris Commons keeping his nerve to convert a late penalty winner that sent them through.
“The players have played brilliantly,” Lennon said. “I was really impressed with them in the qualification games because they were the real pressure games and they handled the group really, really well. They showed great maturity in the second half on Wednesday when all the pressure was on them. They have handled any situation thrown at them and come out the other side very, very well.
“I’m just glad we got over that fine line, I’m glad this team got over the fine line, because there were a lot of times people were saying during my management career that they seemed to fall short in the big games. Well, we have done that and we have done it in spades now and for me that’s very satisfactory.”
Lennon added: “We were aware that no other Scottish team had qualified with ten points, so that was special as well. They have covered themselves in glory. They have shown everyone what they can do and I just want them to keep motoring in the same way.
“There is still loads of room for improvement in all the players. They are all in their mid and early 20s so they are not even in the peak of their careers.” The relatively young age of the Celtic squad is by design. Without the riches of teams from Europe’s top leagues, Celtic embarked on a policy of recruiting young talent from across the world and developing them. Lennon, whose transfer dealings have made Celtic a profit of around £6 million, said: “We would love to have the revenue streams that (English) Premier League teams get but I think there is something Corinthian about the way we do it.
“There is still that team spirit, there is still that rawness about Celtic Park on a European night that is untouched by the corporate side of the game. How- ever, we don’t want the gap to get too big between us and the rest of the European teams, so having this money coming in from the Champions League has been hugely beneficial for the club in how we progress.”
Celtic’s victory over Barcelona saw Lennon receive a congratulatory phone call from Sir Elton John, but there was a more predictable well-wisher this week in the shape of Sir Alex Ferguson, whose Manchester United side are potential opponents for Celtic when the draw is made on 20 December. “Sir Alex sent me a text congratulating me,” Lennon said. “He has been fantastic throughout this whole campaign, just little bits of advice here and there. Nothing major but he was delighted for us and delighted for the club. What I did say is ‘I hope to God we don’t draw you’. And he said ‘If you do then make sure there is a nice bottle of wine waiting for me’.
“I suppose in terms of glamour and prestige Man United would be right up there, but I’m not sure over two games how well we would progress against Man United or Dortmund, they have had an excellent campaign as well. But you never know in two months’ time where all the teams are in terms of form and fitness.
“I have no direct favourite, we will just look forward to the draw and see what it brings. Now we have made the group stages we are thinking ‘Can we make the last eight?”’
However, Lennon will try to banish thoughts of the Champions League for now as Celtic first face Kilmarnock in the SPL at lunchtime today before a Scottish Cup replay at Arbroath on Wednesday night. Lennon, whose side have dropped points after five European games this season, said: “It’s obviously been a nice distraction but a distraction nonetheless from domestic duties.
“It’s a fantastic achievement and we are all delighted and really looking forward to it, but it’s not going to come round till February now and we can really concentrate on the SPL and cup competitions, which is the main focus and always is the priority.”
Kilmarnock striker Borja Perez believes Celtic’s European success can only help boost the image of Scottish football around the world.
He said: “The Champions League is the best tournament in Europe, possibly the world. I’m impressed that Celtic are in the next stage of the Champions League.
“It’s good for the Scottish league because the world now looks at this league better than before.”
However, the forward will be more than happy for Kilmarnock to take advantage of any tired legs within the Celtic ranks at Rugby Park today.
He added: “Hopefully they will be a little bit tired. We just have to try to do our best.”