TRY as he might to deflect all of the praise for one of Celtic’s greatest ever results onto his players, Neil Lennon had better get used to having the plaudits heaped firmly in his direction.
For while Wednesday night’s epic 2-1 win over Barcelona at Parkhead was unquestionably borne of a phenomenal collective effort from those in green and white on the pitch, it was perhaps most of all a stunning validation of Lennon’s rapid emergence as one of the hottest managerial properties in British football.
Not so long ago burdened by a perception that he lacked the capacity to guide Celtic to victory in the major fixtures which mattered most, Lennon now seems every inch the man for the big occasion.
Having won only three of his first 12 European games as Celtic manager, Lennon has now won six of his past eight. He has suffered defeat just twice in the past 13 European matches – both of them by a single goal margin away from home to Spanish opponents in Atletico Madrid last season and Barcelona two weeks ago.
How well Lennon has learned the harsh lessons of two years ago when back-to-back eliminations in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League and Europa League against Braga and Utrecht had many observers, both among the media and in the Celtic Park stands, questioning the wisdom of his appointment as manager on a permanent basis.
Having taken the stick when it was going wrong, Lennon deserves to allow himself the luxury of basking in his fair share of the compliments being showered upon Celtic in the wake of a remarkable triumph which gives them an outstanding opportunity to reach the last 16 of the Champions League.
Simply by reaching the group stage this season, Lennon both enhanced his own reputation and earned his club a hugely significant boost to their prestige and finances. It would have been keenly noted in the Celtic Park boardroom on Wednesday night, amid the euphoria of beating one of the finest club sides of all time, that a cool e2.5 million performance bonus has already been secured by Lennon’s team on top of the basic e8.6m guaranteed for participation in the group phase.
Seeded fourth in Group G, Celtic now have the chance to wildly exceed most expectations of them in the competition. The win over Barcelona not only maintained a three-point cushion over third-placed Benfica, with bottom-placed Spartak Moscow a further point adrift, but it ensured that the Catalan giants cannot ease up in their remaining fixtures.
There had been the prospect of Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova filling his side with youth players for the games against Spartak in Russia on 20 November and at home to Benfica on 5 December, had they claimed the victory at Celtic Park which would have confirmed their qualification for the knockout phase as group winners.
Now, they still have work to do and the stellar names of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, David Villa et al will not be receiving the break from action Vilanova had intended.
Celtic will hope Barcelona can take maximum points from those two games, leaving their own requirements to join them in the last 16 far more manageable. A point for Lennon’s men against Benfica in Lisbon on 20 November might even be enough, while they would fancy their chances of beating Spartak at Parkhead on 5 December if necessary.
The worst case scenario for Celtic now, unless Spartak can win both of their remaining games, is a third place finish and qualification for the last 32 of the Europa League.
Even if that would seem anti-climactic to some after such a momentous win against Barcelona, it would still exceed Celtic’s seeding, and achieving any European football beyond the turn of the year would have to be regarded as a success for Lennon.
He remained circumspect yesterday, trying to assess the state of Group G in a cool-headed manner as he tries to ensure that his players can cope with the heightened sense of optimism surrounding their European campaign.
“At the end of the day we haven’t done anything yet, we haven’t qualified,” said Lennon. “I said judge us over six games and we have given ourselves a great platform.
“What it means is that Barcelona still have to get something out of the next two games which benefits us. They will have to get a point or maybe three out of the two remaining games which is great because they could have had 12 points after last night if they had beaten us and could have chopped and changed in the remaining two games.
“It gives us a foothold to get something at Benfica or against Spartak Moscow in the last game and really, that is all we could have asked for going into this competition.”
Lennon will hope to have improved resources at his disposal by the time he steps on board the flight to Lisbon in 10 days’ time. The absence of Scott Brown, Emilio Izaguirre, Thomas Rogne, James Forrest, Lassad Nouioui and Gary Hooper on Wednesday night made the resourcefulness of his strategic planning for the match all the more admirable.
He is making the most of Celtic’s intelligent scouting system, which has delivered productive but previously unheralded talent such as Victor Wanyama and Efe Ambrose to his first-team squad. They were among Celtic’s leading performers against Barcelona, along with 20-year-old Welsh full-back Adam Matthews who had his finest 90 minutes yet in a hooped shirt.
Lennon has shown that he has a keen eye for a player himself, however, irrespective of the club’s scouting network. It was he who identified the prolific Hooper, signing him from Scunthorpe United, while his faith in goalkeeper Fraser Forest and central defender Kelvin Wilson, both of whom had many detractors at the start of their Celtic careers, has been vindicated.
At just 41, there is the promise of much more to come for Lennon.
As he himself observed, he may never top the joyful emotion and sense of achievement he experienced on Wednesday night. But all of the evidence now points to the man from Lurgan being able to oversee a consistently successful era in Celtic’s history.