Bullish Neil Lennon encouraged by Celtic’s Champions League start
NEIL Lennon last night accentuated the positives from Celtic’s return to the Champions League as he insisted qualification from Group G remains firmly within the capabilities of his team.
The SPL title holders were forced to settle for a point against Benfica at Parkhead in a goalless draw which largely failed to live up to the build-up and expectations surrounding their first appearance at this stage of the tournament for four years.
But Lennon was anything but downbeat afterwards, reflecting with pride and satisfaction in the efforts of a team in which only captain Scott Brown had any previous experience of Champions League group stage football.
The Celtic manager accepts that he will now need to oversee a least one positive result away from home in the remainder of the campaign but that has not diminished his optimism.
“There are a lot of positives to take from tonight although,
ideally, you would like to win your home games,” said Lennon. “It makes things a little bit more difficult for us but it’s not insurmountable. We look forward with a lot of confidence.
“I haven’t set the team any targets. What I did say to them was that if they were not going to win the game, then don’t lose it. We have gained a point already.
“We will now have to get something away from home in at least one of the games, which is always a tall order with our record in the competition on the road. But this is a different team and capable of getting some results away from home.
“Tonight was their first test of Champions League football and the majority of them passed it. It was a fair result. We didn’t work their goalkeeper as much as I would have liked.
“Having said that, I was very pleased with the team’s performance. There was a very good tempo and a very good shape to us. We were committed and played with real zest and no fear against a class side.
“So it’s a decent start for us. It could have been better, it could have been worse. We are learning as we go along. The players have sampled it now, they’ve had a feel of it.
“There were 10 guys out there making their Champions League debuts against a very experienced Champions League side, so I’m very proud of the team tonight. I always thought we could compete in this group and I hope we will get a little bit more respect now from the footballing world. Benfica went into the game as heavy favourites but you couldn’t really call it tonight.”
Lennon suffered a blow early yesterday, when Gary Hooper was declared unfit to start the match because of an ankle injury, leaving him even more gratified by the final outcome. He added: “We are immensely hampered by the lack of striking options. My leading goalscorer [Hooper] was ruled out of the starting line-up this morning, and we were already without Georgios Samaras. We are hoping he [Samaras] will be fit for Spartak Moscow away in a couple of weeks, because he’s a huge plus for us.
“But I was delighted with Miku, I have to say. I thought he led the line very, very well. For his home competitive debut, in that environment, he showed what a good player he is.
“It shows that we have a bit of depth in the squad to compete at this level. We were without Samaras, Joe Ledley and Beram Kayal, who are all tremendous players and will be back soon. Allied to that, Miku and Lassad will be further down the line in terms of fitness and Efe Ambrose will come in.
“I think we might have lost that game this time last year. That’s four clean sheets in Europe this season now and we haven’t lost a game in Europe since Atletico Madrid beat us here last year.
“Maybe our final ball at times lacked that little bit of cutting edge tonight, because we worked the ball into good areas. But there were some great individual performances.
“Charlie Mulgrew had a fantastic game. Adam Matthews and Kelvin Wilson were excellent, while Victor Wanyama and Scott Brown did well in midfield. In the second half, Brown was colossal for us.
“He just gives the team real drive. There were moments in the second half when he saw the danger and covered the ground really quickly with some tremendous tackles, nipping Benfica’s counter-attacks in the bud. He has matured and blossomed into the captaincy.
“He recovered very quickly from the game against St Johnstone at the weekend, which is very pleasing, and finished the game strongly tonight. We’ll wait and see how he is in the next couple of days.”
England goalkeeping coach Ray Clemence was present at Parkhead last night to see Celtic ’keeper Fraser Forster keep another clean sheet which can only enhance his international ambitions.
“I knew Ray was coming tonight but I didn’t relay that to Fraser before the game,” smiled Lennon. “I wanted to make sure he concentrated on his game. Whatever he did, he did very well.
“He was composed, assured and made a decent save in the second half. He has made a huge difference to us defensively.”
Benfica coach Jorge Jesus was frustrated that he had to settle for a draw last night.
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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