Maturing Celtic entitled to dream of Champions League last 16
CELTIC chose the day of their opening Champions League Group G fixture at home to Benfica two weeks ago as the most convenient date to publish their annual accounts.
If it was viewed by the club’s plc board as the best day to bury the bad news of a £7 million loss, they can now be content that the numbers are all stacking up nicely for the Scottish champions both on and off the field.
Tuesday night’s stunning 3-2 victory over Spartak Moscow in Russia, Celtic’s maiden success away from home in the Champions League proper, has left Neil Lennon’s team with what he described yesterday as a “fighting chance” of upsetting the odds and qualifying for the last 16 of the tournament.
The win also earned Celtic a cool €1million bonus from Uefa as they top up the basic €8.6 million secured simply by making it to the group stage for the first time in four years.
It’s safe to assume that when chief executive Peter Lawwell and chairman Ian Bankier get round to releasing the interim 2012-13 accounts in a few months’ time, they will have a much healthier balance sheet to discuss.
Lennon deserves enormous credit for the job he has done during a period of financial downsizing and uncertainty in Scottish football. The result and performance delivered in Moscow was vindication of his unshakeable faith in the vibrant young side he has assembled over the past two years.
For someone still regarded as a ‘rookie’ in managerial terms, Lennon has also quickly come to terms with what is required to succeed on the European stage. After a chastening first season at that level, with the back-to-back Champions League and Europa League defeats at the hands of Braga and Utrecht, Lennon has proved a quick learner.
After benefitting from Sion’s expulsion last season after another qualifying round loss, Celtic gradually found their feet in a Europa League group alongside Atletico Madrid, Udinese and Rennes. Although they failed to qualify, the six matches were crucial in Lennon’s adaptation of his team’s style of play in Europe.
Now unbeaten in their last seven European games, Celtic again showed a mature and mentally resilient approach against Spartak. Lennon has fashioned a counter-attacking strategy which is paying dividends. Although the possession statistics were 57-43 per cent in Spartak’s favour, Celtic managed 13 attempts at goal to their hosts’ nine.
A wholly different challenge awaits on Matchday 3, of course, when Lennon leads his team to face Barcelona at the Nou Camp on 23 October. Lennon is publicly writing off the double-header against the Catalan giants, who are the visitors to Celtic Park for Matchday 4 two weeks’ later, and sees the trip to Benfica on 20 November and the final fixture at home to Spartak on 5 December as the key to prospects of finishing runners-up in the group.
“We have given ourselves a great opportunity,” Lennon told talkSport. “We only have the small matter now of Barcelona home and away. You can’t budget for those games. So it’s really about what we can take away in Benfica and at home to Spartak. If Barcelona can run away with the group, then it’s a three-way fight for the rest.”
Lennon was still savouring the win in Moscow, a result he hopes will be as much of a boost to the overall reputation of the game in Scotland as it is to his players.
“I’m not too sure Scottish football is held in the greatest of lights at the minute,” he added. “I feel we have a very good team and it’s a great club. Sometimes that gets missed through the other negativity that surrounds the game these days.
“It’s a huge monkey off the club’s back and these players have a different mentality now going into Europe. Our away record has been decent. So it gives us a fighting chance.”
Lennon also hopes it has enhanced striker Gary Hooper’s chance of earning a call-up from England manager Roy Hodgson who names his squad today for their World Cup double header against San Marino and Poland.
“His goal in Moscow was typical Gary,” said Lennon. “It was such a hard finish to do. He’s guided it across the goalkeeper and used the pace of the cross brilliantly.
“His goal record speaks for itself. But what he is doing now is adding other aspects to his game which he probably didn’t do before. He has got everything you want in a centre forward.
“You look at his record wherever he’s been, whether it be at Grays, Scunthorpe or Celtic, his goal record is fantastic. It doesn’t matter what level you are playing at, when you have a goal record like that it shouldn’t be dismissed.
“People keep saying he’s got to do it in the big games, well I think he’s got six in 11 in Europe, six in 11 in Old Firm games and I think he got 30 goals last season domestically and in Europe. There’s not much more Gary can do to knock on the door of Roy Hodgson.”
But if Hooper’s contribution was pivotal on Tuesday, perhaps Lennon’s most notable success as Celtic manager has been his reinvention of Georgios Samaras. The Greek forward is arguably the key man in the system used in Europe by Lennon who has never lost faith in a player who, not so long ago, had to endure abuse from the Celtic fans. His winning goal in Moscow was especially sweet for his manager.
“When he is in full flow, he is an exceptional talent,” said Lennon. “He’s found his position wide left, whether it’s in a 4-3-3 or a 4-5-1. It suits him better when he can come in the pitch.
“His movement off the ball is very, very good. You’ve seen it when he’s playing for Greece as well. He’s a big strong boy. He was a wee bit wishy-washy but in the last year or so he has become a huge player for us.
“He was under pressure from supporters but he has shown a huge amount of character. He had offers to go elsewhere for more money, to Spain or Germany, but he wanted to stay here and prove himself to everybody.
“He has done that in spades. We want more goals from him like the one in Moscow. It’s a dying breed, players who can head the ball like that. I love that. I could never do it myself but I played alongside Chris Sutton, John Hartson and Henrik Larsson who were all brilliant at it. We want Sami to do that more, because he has the capability. It was a wonderful goal.”
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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