HAVING come a long way in a short time as Celtic manager, there could be no more appropriate setting than Lisbon for Neil Lennon to earn his 100th victory in the job.
That is the statistic which could happily coincide with qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League if Lennon can oversee the collection of all three points from tonight’s pivotal Group G encounter with Benfica in the Portuguese capital.
It is, of course, a city which resonates louder than any other in Celtic’s history. This afternoon, their supporters will make their way to the Estadio Nacional, scene of the 1967 European Cup final triumph against Inter Milan, to have their photographs taken with the replica trophy which has been temporarily removed from its place in the Celtic Park boardroom.
It joined Lennon and his players on their charter flight to Lisbon yesterday morning, taking up two seats at the back of the plane. Steve Chalmers, scorer of the winning goal 45 years ago, joined fellow Lisbon Lions Bobby Lennox and John Clark, the latter now the club’s kit man, in the travelling party.
Lennon is happy to indulge the nostalgia which inevitably surrounds the trip and will take his squad to the Estadio Nacional this morning for a light training session to give them a taste of it.
It is, however, what happens across the city at Benfica’s magnificent Stadium of Light tonight which matters most to Lennon as he bids to write his own significant chapter in Celtic’s European story.
Reaching the knockout phase of the Champions League with one game to spare would be a remarkable feat for a man whose managerial career in Europe began in ignominious fashion in the same country just over two years ago with a 3-0 defeat to Braga.
Lennon has since overcome the doubts over his suitability as Celtic manager, compiling an impressive record of 99 wins, 18 draws and just 21 defeats from his 138 games in charge so far.
He admits that to reach the century of victories in Lisbon, thereby ensuring Celtic’s place in the last 16 of the Champions League at the expense of their hosts, would represent a new personal high point.
“If we win here, it will be the best thing I’ve done in my career,” said Lennon, in relaxed but unmistakably determined mood at Celtic’s luxurious seafront base in Cascais on the outskirts of Lisbon.
“I wasn’t aware my next win would be my 100th as Celtic manager and it wouldn’t get any better if it happened here and we go through. We will go the old national stadium in the morning, just for the players to have a look around it as much as anything.
“I don’t even know if there is still a tunnel area there now or what it’s like, but we’ve all seen the snippets of film when the boys of ‘67 walked out into the sunshine before kick-off.
“I want the players to get a wee sense of the history and think about what meant so much to so many people. It might inspire them, I don’t know, but it’s always nice to come back to Lisbon anyway. It’s where the European Cup was won.
“I don’t really buy into the stuff with the trophy coming with us, to be honest. It’s for the fans, all that sort of stuff. It will have absolutely no relevance come kick-off time against Benfica, but I do want the players to embrace the history and it’s nice having some of the Lions with us on the trip.
“They have always been very supportive to me since I got the job and I enjoy their company.”
Having started out as fourth seeds in the group and finding their way gingerly at this level with a 0-0 draw at home to Benfica on matchday one back in September, Lennon’s players have dramatically heightened the expectation levels surrounding them with their subsequent displays in beating Spartak Moscow in Russia and then sharing the spoils with Barcelona in their successive meetings with the Catalan giants.
It would be a considerable anti-climax for Celtic and their supporters if they could not now build on the stunning 2-1 defeat of Barcelona in Glasgow a fortnight ago.
“I know the expectations have gone through the roof in time,” added Lennon, “but I want to temper that and say ‘listen, we haven’t achieved anything yet’. It was a great night against Barcelona but it’s gone now.
“We might as well go the whole way now and qualify. We have put so much into the group so far and I’d just like the boys to see it through.
“I don’t want to look at it negatively, in terms of if we didn’t qualify from this position, but we are aware of the implications for doing it and for if we don’t.
“The players have come a long way since that first night at home to Benfica. The win in Moscow was huge and with the two performances against Barca, they have just grown and grown. It can all change again in just one game and I’m wary about this one because Benfica are a very good side.
“But my team have shown me they are fearless and they don’t buckle when they are under pressure. That’s good, because I think we’ll be under pressure in this game. They have excellent attacking players in Oscar Cardozo, Lima and Rodrigo. They press you quite well and play at a good tempo.
“If we can weather whatever Benfica throw at us, then I think there are goals in the game for us.”