HE HAS been known to sneak more than a peek at the internet forums and social media sites populated by his club’s followers, but it is to be hoped that Neil Lennon kept his internet browsing to a bare minimum these past few days.
Otherwise, the Celtic manager might have begun to fret over the fact that expectations have shown signs of parting company with reality on the matter of how events, by rights, should pan out in the San Siro tonight.
When their team was drawn with AC Milan, Barcelona and Ajax in Group H, the Celtic support initially produced mournful laments over what could unfold in this season’s Champions League. That tune has now changed, and the pitch has become ever higher about the chances of inflicting damage on the home side at one of Europe’s great football amphitheatres.
“They have nine players out”, Celtic supporters have been singing to themselves – and anyone else within earshot – as they present tonight’s tussle as one of those “never have a better chance”, occasions. It is true that AC Milan have been shorn of playmaker and captain Riccardo Montolivo and first-choice full-backs Ignazio Abate and Mattia De Sciglio in recent weeks. But other injury casualties, such as Daniele Bonera, Matias Silvestre, Giampaolo Pazzini, Stephan El Shaarawy and even Kaka, would likely have been on the bench.
It is also true that Massimiliano Allegri’s men, a distant third to Juventus in last season’s Serie A, have been far from convincing in the early rounds of the current championship. A scrambled 2-2 draw away to Torino at the weekend means they have harvested only four points from a possible nine in three games. But Milan, with a record in Europe’s top tournament that places them only two wins behind record nine-times winners Real Madrid, have had a tendency to come alive in continental competition.
Lennon knows that claims their traditional vibrancy has entirely evaporated must be treated with scepticism. He heard as much before the last 16 tie between the two teams six years ago, when he was a Celtic player. He and his team-mates pushed the Italians all the way before losing in extra time in the San Siro. In so doing, they provided the propulsion for Milan – admittedly a much more potent vintage than now – to once more claim possession of the big cup.
“People read too much into that [talk of them not being in the best shape],” the Celtic manager said. “This is a team that beat Barcelona 2-0 last season and, at home, they’re still a pretty formidable team. So, regardless of a few injuries or call-offs, they’ll still be immense opponents to come up against.
“I am sure as the season and the campaign progresses Milan as always will get better and stronger. I can’t look too much into Milan’s problems, I have to concentrate on my own.
“He [Milan manager Allegri] can maybe bring [Alessandro] Matri into the team. He cost a lot of money, money that myself or my board of directors can only dream of paying for players. I can’t really offer up a lot of sympathy at this stage for him.”
Last season, Celtic claimed ten points from their group efforts, beating Barcelona at home and being seconds from holding them to a draw away, as well as ending a run of 19 games without a win on the road in the tournament proper with a 3-2 success over Spartak Moscow.
But Lennon has made no bones about his belief that “it will be difficult to emulate” what Celtic achieved last season.
Not that he is in any way defeatist about what could lie in wait. He is merely maintaining perspective in the face of the ever-increasing optimism of many Celtic supporters.
Lennon said: “The squad’s looking good – there’s good balance in it – and this team hasn’t shown much fear in the last 18 months to two years. There’s good belief but you can’t dictate what others think of your chances. You just have to concentrate on what we want to do and Milan in Milan is as difficult as it comes. We respect that, but we’re playing well so there’s no reason why we can’t go into the game with some confidence.
“Certainly, a point [would be a flying start for us]. We’ve Barcelona coming up so we’ve got to take something from this game.”
The fact remains that even this current Celtic side have only one win and one draw from their past six forays outside of their own borders in Europe, that solitary success achieved against the Northern Irish part-timers of Cliftonville. Moreover, whatever Milan’s problems at the back, in attack they have daunting performers. Understandably, in-form Mario Balotelli is the headline act. Strike partner Alessandro Matri, though, boasts two goals from two games against Celtic, having scored for previous club Juventus in both legs of the teams’ last 16 ties six months ago.
Despite a controversial career, Balotelli has been the one man Milan have been able to rely on to turn games for them this season. As he did, with Lennon looking on, to help his team recover a point after Torino went 2-0 up at the weekend.
“I like his individuality,” the Celtic manager said. “He’s a class player and, having watched him the other night – it was the first time I’ve had a good look at him – he’s a world-class striker.
“The majority of Milan’s good play comes though him. He’s a pivotal player at the front of their attack.
“For all people want to criticise him he’s a top, top player. People look at him and say that he’s a bit moody but the more you rattle him the more he responds to it.
“But you can’t just concentrate on Balotelli. There are so many good players that we need to be wary of as well. I don’t really read too much into his off-the-field problems. I’d have in my team, put it that way.”
Lennon is undoubtedly more relaxed about the Champions League group stages the second time around.
A year ago, he would have no truck with any happy-snapping and plans for jersey-swapping at the Camp Nou.
Now he seems to accept that, as well as giving their all, there might be no harm in players doing whatever allows them to take in the experience of “playing one of the aristocrats of Champions League football at a great venue”.
Certainly, that is the intention of their manager.
“I want to savour them all this year. Last year was my first time and sometimes when I look back I think ‘maybe I could have done more of that’ so, this time, I’m going to enjoy it.
“ [When it comes to the players] they’re footballers and all of these clubs have great history and tradition so they want to take some memories from it because they might not get the opportunity again.
“But we’re going to compete in every game and see where it takes us.”