CELTIC manager Neil Lennon believes his players will find progress to the knockout phase of the Champions League tougher still this season but has challenged them to prove they are not the “runts of the litter”.
Yesterday’s draw in Monaco bracketed the Scottish champions with Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax in Group H, prompting Lennon to let his head slump onto the table in front of him in mock horror as he watched it unfold from Celtic’s training headquarters at Lennoxtown.
They will kick off with a trip to the San Siro to face Milan on 18 September, followed by the visit of Barcelona to Celtic Park on 1 October. Celtic then take on Ajax home and away on 22 October and 6 November, welcome Milan to Glasgow on 26 November and finish up against Barcelona in the Nou Camp on 11 December.
But, despite the severe test the series of fixtures against three clubs who are all multiple former European champions will provide, Lennon wants his team to be undaunted as they attempt to repeat last year’s feat of reaching the last 16 of the tournament.
Twelve months ago, he provoked a sceptical reaction from many observers when he said it was “do-able” for Celtic when they were drawn alongside Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow. But his team’s ten-point haul from that group, which included victory over Barcelona at Parkhead, vindicated his faith. “I think it’s a little bit more difficult than do-able this year,” admitted Lennon. “In terms of glamour, it’s the plum group obviously. But, in terms of football, it’s very, very difficult.
“The pedigree of all three teams is fantastic. Barcelona and Milan, especially, have been among the superpowers of European football in the last ten years or so. Ajax, slowly but surely, are building into being a top European team again.
“We shouldn’t be in awe any more. We should feel part of it. Alright, we have to qualify and we’ve done that. But we shouldn’t feel as if we are the runts of the litter. We should be a part of it.
“When you see the draw getting made, there is no better feeling. My reaction was just about the magnitude of the task. It was the one group you were thinking it would be nice to avoid. But, as sure as eggs are eggs, we landed in it. It’s typical of Scottish teams, we always seem to get the toughies. I always think when Scotland get drawn in the World Cup or European Championship, they get the really tough teams. We seem to have done that today.
“We are going to compete. We are going to try and compete as well as we did last season. You just never know what it is going to bring.
“Can you get anything in terms of a point or two against Barcelona? I don’t know. AC Milan? They are probably not as strong as they were when they won it in 2007. Ajax? Probably not as strong as they have been in the last 15 years. But they have shown huge signs of improvement.
“It’s hard to gauge where we sit against those teams at the minute and what we can do between now and Saturday night in terms of strengthening the squad and making it better.”
To that end, Celtic have completed the signing of Israeli international midfielder Nir Biton from FC Ashdod and expect to unveil the 21-year-old today. They are also close to finalising the capture of Finnish international striker Teemu Pukki from Schalke 04. Lennon is hopeful of at least one further recruit before the transfer window closes in Scotland on Saturday night.
Having lost Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and Kelvin Wilson during the past few weeks, all of them gone before the play-off round tie against Shakhter Karagandy, Lennon is relieved to see Celtic making fresh progress in replenishing his resources.
“It’s great,” he added. “We were short. If any team loses a centre forward, arguably their best midfield player, and their mainstay centre half in a month… we’ve found it difficult to bring players in.
“We were aware that Victor and Gary might go, but I didn’t envisage Kelvin wanting to leave so that was a difficult thing to take as well. And I think we did miss him, particularly in the first leg against Shakhter Karagandy, although the two boys at the back [Efe Ambrose and Mikael Lustig] on Wednesday night were fabulous.
“We have done it all ourselves. We have had seven players go out and only four come in. I always think when you are in a position of strength, you try and strengthen. We have tried to do that, but haven’t been able to. So the players have done it without any reinforcements coming in. I think they deserve huge credit.”