CELTIC’S Champions League campaign was smothered because Neil Lennon’s men provided a comfort blanket for their Group H opponents.
Ajax were supposed to be on their uppers when they condemned Celtic to a downer of a defeat in Amsterdam. Then AC Milan were in an almighty mess before mangling the Scottish champions’ hopes of even a place in the Europa League. Little wonder Lennon sees the potential for danger in a supposedly pressure-free encounter in the Nou Camp on Wednesday. Whatever happens in this final continental confrontation for his club this season, four defeats in their previous five games have anchored Celtic to the bottom of their group. Barcelona, though, have lost two of the past three matches, and need a point to make sure they cannot be dislodged from the summit of the section. The Nou Camp side need a home comfort this week.
“If I said to you ‘right, we’re going to go out and go for it’ because we’ve got nothing to play for, then that would make it a danger,” the Celtic manager said. “So we’ll try to approach the game the exact same way and try to get, not pride, but try to get something out of the game for future reference. We’ll try to get more than three points out of the group. That’s all I can ask for. There’s something on the line in terms of the result as well, not just for the club [prize money is close to £1 million for a group stage win] but the players as well. I think they’ll all want to play in the game. The shackles will be off a little bit but there has to a defensive discipline and a concentration there. If we do get carried away we’ll be punished.”
The meaningless nature of the tie for Celtic will not destroy the sense of occasion Lennon considers inherent in playing at the highest level of club football in one of the game’s most storied amphitheatres. “I might never get the chance to do it again. I want to look back on my career and think ‘look, I coached twice at the Nou Camp’. Or coached four times in total against Barcelona. It is not something where I just want to turn up to have a good time, go down to the Ramblas and take a look round the cathedral – although I might be talked into that. I want to enjoy the occasion. Probably with a little bit less pressure on us, we can maybe be a little bit more adventurous in the way we line up.”
The fact that the Irishman will be able to line up with captain Scott Brown at the heart of his midfield might serve as a reminder as to where the club’s Champions League adventure turned sour. Brown’s brainless indiscipline in being sent off for kicking out at the falling Neymar when Celtic hosted the Catalan club in October not only wrecked hopes of a point at Parkhead against Barca, it cost them his services for the next three games. Ajax at home might have been hairily negotiated but Lennon does not seek to downplay the loss of the player – currently in the form of his life – in the assignments against Amsterdam and AC Milan that followed.
“Looking at the squad, I have [Nir] Biton and Brown available, and there is no question that Browny will definitely make us better. [James] Forrest and [Adam] Matthews will be available as well, so we should have an injection of pace into the team and you clearly need that against a team like Barcelona. I am actually really looking forward to the game.
“It is not just that [intensity you lose without Brown] – you just lose a quality player. He is playing very, very well. I think over the years the histrionic side of him has surpassed the playing ability, I know this season will be remembered for the Neymar incident but this season, when he has played, I think he has been absolutely superb. In the San Siro [on matchday one] I thought he was outstanding and we have really missed him in the three games. It is all ifs, buts and maybes now but he will be champing at the bit to play and he will play.”
Celtic have a pretty remarkable record to defend against Barcelona. In the past decade, they have played them ten times – eight occasions in the Champions League and twice in the UEFA Cup. Of course they have lost more often that not – five defeats, with three draws and two victories - but only once in the past ten years have they lost out by more than a single goal against the Catalan club.
Lennon has had some hefty losses in Europe – a 4-0 away to Utrecht, 3-0 in Braga and 3-0 home defeats against Juventus and Milan – but it would not flatter him were his record against Barcelona currently to read two wins and a draw. Indeed his last visit to the Nou Camp is a night that still tugs at him. Celtic led 1-0 before the concession of two goals in the closing minutes.
“It was incredible, I had mixed emotions by the end of the game,” he says of the defeat 13 months ago. “One was huge disappointment, but one of huge pride. People were expecting us to go there and get an absolute tonking but we were 30 seconds away from getting another brilliant result against them. We have played very, very well against them over the three games, I am just hoping we can continue that and it doesn’t just fade away in the last game.”
How the already qualified Barcelona will set out this week is harder to predict in the, somewhat troubled, reign of new coach Tata Martino. Lennon considers it “interesting” the Argentine has gone with the “false No.9” in the absence of the injured Lionel Messi and, despite recent history, has effusive praise for the contribution of summer recruit Neymar.
“For all his histrionics, he’s a hell of a player,” Lennon said. “I thought at Celtic Park he was outstanding. He will learn, he’ll mature, and I think that side of his game will disappear as he gets older. You get a wee bit frustrated watching it, but it’s down to immaturity more than anything else. I do think he’ll grow out of it. There’ll be a point where the penny drops with him and he realises ‘I don’t need to do this’. If not, I’m sure someone will tell him further down the line. But I was very impressed with him that night.”
The concern for Lennon is that, on Wednesday, a Champions League campaign that those of a Celtic disposition will not recall with any great relish, could become far more unimpressive.