Neil Lennon braced for battle against Barcelona’s ‘baby-faced assassins’
NEIL Lennon wasn’t wearing war paint but the Celtic manager spoke like he was ready to go to battle here in Barcelona.
In the hours before the ultimate test that club football has to offer – a Champions League tie at the Nou Camp – Lennon spoke of the “baby-faced assassins” awaiting his team this evening. While declaring Lionel Messi – who has a frankly obscene 71 goals to his name for club and country in the calendar year – as the greatest player there’s ever been and announcing that this Barcelona side have changed the very fabric of the game, there was a rallying cry for his own men. Lennon said he had a fear of getting embarrassed but that his team were “not here for a holiday.”
Lennon respects and admires Barcelona, but he doesn’t do cap-doffing deference and doesn’t want his team to do it either. “People (players) do all this, ‘There he is, look at Xavi’ and it’s all ‘can I have your shirt after the game?’ But that’s not what it’s about. These guys are baby-faced assassins. They will eat you alive if you give them half a chance. They will rip you to shreds. They come across as really nice guys, but they are absolute animals.
“I can’t really stop them (doing deals to swap shirts in the aftermath of the game) because I won’t be in the tunnel when the teams walk out, but I just want them to look straight ahead, not look at the side, and try to focus on getting a foothold on the game at some stage. They have to be totally focussed for 93 or 94 minutes and it won’t be enjoyable at times. People say, ‘what’s it like to play in the Nou Camp?’ Well, you come off and say ‘I don’t know, I don’t remember much about it.’ I was too busy doing this, that or the other. It possibly won’t be that enjoyable for myself either. There is anxiety there. I’ve thought about nothing else.”
There are crumbs of comfort for Celtic. Firstly, they are in fine form. Secondly, Barcelona have a list of defenders and a key defensive midfielder absent through a mixture of injury and suspension. Such luminaries as Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Dani Alves and Sergio Busquets will play no part tonight. In the hunt for reasons to believe in the miracle we can look to the recent frailties in the Barcelona defence and all the goals they’ve been shipping; four against Deportivo last weekend and 10 in their last six games in all competitions. If that’s a straw then Lennon had better take a firm hold of it because the rest of the news is enough to make him gulp.
There is a major injury doubt over Scott Brown, the man who has formed such an impressive ballast in the heart of the Celtic midfield alongside Victor Wanyama in their two previous Champions League games. As Lennon pointed out yesterday, this is the kind of occasion that is made for Brown and his Rottweiler ways. If he’s not there then you fear for the visitors all the more.
Barca might be vulnerable at the back, but only if you can get close enough to them for it to make a difference. Therein lies the herculean problem. Their attacking genius is the same as it ever was. Tonight they’re being tipped to go with a five up top that includes Iniesta and Xavi playing behind David Villa, Messi and Pedro with, possibly, no place for Cesc Fabregas, still one of the great creators in world football.
As a team, this season Barcelona are averaging almost three goals a game. They are unbeaten here in 17 European matches dating back to October 2009. If they win tonight it will be their 100th Champions League victory. For Celtic, in footballing terms, this is Everest.
“Listen, they make great teams look ordinary,” said Lennon. “It’s a totally different set up for me as a coach. The normal instincts of the players will be curtailed. Not by choice; just by the sheer force of the players they are going to come up against. Watching them through DVDs, analysing them, looking at how other teams have set up. They just peg you back. They have done that to Chelsea, Real Madrid. If they get a stranglehold on you they don’t let go.
“You are wary of being embarrassed. You don’t want that. I certainly don’t want that. Everyone says it’s very exciting going there, but these guys have to go out and play against them. Can a bit of fear actually be a positive? Yes, absolutely. I think it’s better to play with a wee bit of fear, a wee bit of edge. It gets the adrenaline going quicker and it sharpens the mind. But not too much fear because that can overwhelm you to the point where your legs go and every time you’re getting the ball you’re giving it away.
“Now, whether we can have a period in the game where we can get our foot on the ball? I believe that every team has a five-ten-15 minute period in a game where they get some sort of encouragement and I’m sure we will get that at some stage. Whether we capitalise on that, who knows?”
Celtic shook up Group G in Moscow. If they do the same tonight then the tremors will be felt not just in Catalonia but in every corner of planet football.
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