CELTIC manager Neil Lennon cut a bloodied but unbowed figure at the San Siro last night after two late goals prevented a vibrant performance from his side securing any return in their Champions League Group H opener against AC Milan.
Lennon decreed that the “better team” lost and stated that his side had “dominated” the Italians from “20 minutes on in the first half until 10 minutes to go”.
And the fact that those closing stages brought 82nd and 86th-minute strikes by Cristian Zapata – who scored via a deflection off Emilio Izaguire – and Sulley Muntari has not dulled the Celtic manager’s confidence that his team have real possibilities in a group that will see them entertain Barcelona before a double-header with Ajax. He said: “We are here to compete and to try to qualify and nothing changes my view of that after tonight’s performance,” said Lennon. “I was very confident going into the game because of the mentality of the team and the condition of the team. I don’t know why everyone is so surprised, particularly any Scottish journalists here because you’ve seen us playing now for the last 18 months.
“We have an excellent side and we made the last 16 last year. That wasn’t a fluke. So we were in good spirits coming into the game and we fancied ourselves to get some kind of result.
“To come away from the San Siro not having picked up a point, or three points, and feel disappointed is a mark of how we have developed as a team and how well we played tonight. But you have to take your chances when you are on top and, unfortunately, we didn’t get the break of the ball tonight. Milan did, with the deflection for the first goal.
“I think the scoreline flatters Milan tonight. I didn’t think there were two goals between the teams at all.”
Lennon had praise for all his players, with special plaudits for Fraser Forster, Scott Brown, Adam Matthews, and Anthony Stokes who was given his first Champions League outing.
“I think he [Forster] is an outstanding goalkeeper,” said Lennon. “He thrives on this environment and it brings the best out of him. He’s been a huge influence on our European performances over the last two years. Having him in goal gives the whole team such confidence. It was only a deflection really that beat him tonight.
“Matthews was outstanding, he took the game to Milan every chance he got and he backed up Mikael Lustig against [Mario] Balotelli. He is an outstanding young player. I can’t fault any of the individuals out there tonight, it’s just a little bit sore at the minute.
“I think we have surprised a lot of people tonight with the level of performance, the standard of performance and the quality of some of the individual play.
“Apart from the Muntari chance, my goalkeeper had nothing to do the in the second half, we restricted them to long-range shots and we played really good football.
“There was no failures. We didn’t hang on, there wasn’t wave after wave of attacks, we took the game to Milan and we surprised a lot of people tonight. I thought we were the better team playing the better football.
“We had really good chances tonight and that will be one regret going away from here.”
Milan play Ajax in their next fixture and coach Massimiliano Allegri will be hoping his lengthy injury list, which includes Kaka and captain Riccardo Montolivo, will have shortened substantially.
The Italian side looked disjointed for most of the match and will have to improve considerably if they are to reach the knockout stages, from which Allegri is not discounting the Scottish champions.
“We had luck a couple of times in the game tonight but it was a positive performance and an important victory for us,” he said.
“Celtic are a very good team. I believe they still have chances of qualifying out of the group, but everything is still open so we will see.”