WHEN Rasmus Schuller fired HJK Helsinki ahead three minutes into the second half at Celtic Park back on 1 August last year, Neil Lennon could scarcely have imagined he was embarking on a Champions League campaign which would mark him out as a manager of substance at the highest level of club football.
The response of Lennon and his team to that initial setback in the first leg of their third qualifying round tie has been both impressive and hugely rewarding.
After overcoming HJK Helsinki, they came through a tense play-off round tie against Swedish champions Helsingborgs to set up the memorable group stage campaign in which they finished runners-up to Barcelona with ten points to reach the last 16.
Despite the European run coming to a shuddering halt with the 5-0 aggregate loss to Juventus, the heaviest suffered by Celtic in their European history, it has not diminished Lennon’s overall sense of satisfaction.
“I have proved I can manage at this level,” he reflected as he made his way home from Turin yesterday afternoon. “We have also proved that we can compete very well at this level. The football we have played at times has been of a very high order.
“There were so many question marks hanging over my head, even when I first took the job. ‘Rookie manager’ was thrown at me for a long time. Once you win the SPL, that gives you a bit of comfort in a job like this.
“But looking back at the Helsingborgs tie this season, the pressure was incredible. There was a spell in the first leg when we were under severe pressure. We overcame that and it was a huge relief to qualify.
“It just made everything a little bit more seamless going into the group stages. We were finding our feet against Benfica when we drew 0-0 with them at home in the first game, then obviously the huge lift was winning 3-2 away to Spartak Moscow. That gave the whole team, the squad, the club, a little bit of belief.
“There have been some heroic performances from the players during the Champions League campaign. Fraser Forster has been a superb goalkeeper for us, while I thought Kelvin Wilson was unbelievable in defence for us against Juventus on Wednesday night. He was outstanding, certainly England class, and if there are any continental or English Premier League clubs looking at him, he was just unbelievable on Wednesday against a top quality side.”
No Scottish club has reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League in its current format, Celtic falling at the last 16 stage on three occasions in the last seven years, while Rangers were also eliminated in the last 16 back in 2006.
Lennon does not believe that it should prove to be a glass ceiling for the Scottish champions in Europe’s elite tournament.
“It depends on the draw,” he said. “If you get the luck of the draw, then there are teams I think we are on a par with, like Galatasaray and Schalke for instance. But the gulf in size of squads and certainly in the money they have spent is big.
“Just getting into the group stage is such a difficult thing to do now. You are just two or three weeks into your pre-season training when you have the qualifying rounds. It’s a huge ask. Maybe further down the line, if Scotland’s Uefa co-efficient ranking gets better, it might make it easier. But this was the fourth time in the last eight years that a Scottish team has made it to the last 16, which is not bad for a league the size of ours.”
Celtic will have to come through three qualifying rounds to reach the group stage next season, starting their bid on 16 or 17 July. It underlines the difficulty Lennon faces in maintaining the current standard of his squad, with several players likely to be the subject of interest during the summer transfer window.
“I would hazard a guess that it would be difficult to say that this group would be together again if we do qualify next season,” he added.
“You’ve just got to go again. You’ve got to go and try to find quality players. We’ve got money. We’ve got the experience of this season. And we’ve got a club that is robust and going the right way, so it’s an exciting proposition for a lot of players.
“Losing players is the reality of the job sometimes, but a lot of players are happy here. Joe Ledley and Scott Brown are happy. Adam Matthews is enjoying his football here. Kelvin has had a fantastic season, but it is difficult to stop the progress sometimes, the ambitions, and I understand that.
“We are in a different environment from where we were when I was coming the other way from England to sign for Celtic back in 2000. That’s the acceptance that you have in the job.
“It would be good if we could even keep this squad together for the Champions League qualifiers before anyone moved elsewhere. If we could do that, that would help because they know our methods. That’s something we can look at. It would also be good to get any new players in early, but there is no guarantee of that. A lot of clubs will hold onto them until August.
“We have to keep up our strike rate in terms of signing good players. Everyone looks at what we do on that front and will copy or try to overtake it, but I’ve got a great recruitment office with John Park at the head of it. He is working 24-7, it’s a constant turning-of-the-wheel type thing.”
Despite the wide margin of defeat over 180 minutes against Juventus, Lennon insists there is no reason for his players to reproach themselves.
“We just came up a bit short in some areas and there’s no shame in that,” he added. “I thought we had good spells in the game on Wednesday. We needed to score when we had Juventus on the back foot a little bit. I don’t think we were really ever uncomfortable in the game.
“Gianluigi Buffon’s made a good save and the one Georgios Samaras flashed across the goal, you’re just waiting for Gary Hooper tapping that in, and we would have been back in the game.
“It was a big ask to do it over the two games, particularly after being 3-0 down. We never gave ourselves a chance for this one with the scoreline from the first game. We just ran out of legs a bit in the second game. We just don’t have a big enough squad to contend against the likes of Juventus.”