ASKED to name the most demanding fixture in world football at the moment, most people would barely hesitate before stating it is a trip to the Nou Camp to face Barcelona.
But just two weeks after his team came within a few seconds of earning a point in the Catalan capital, Celtic manager Neil Lennon believes he faces an even tougher test against the Champions League Group G leaders in the east end of Glasgow tonight.
Lennon has been party to some heady nights in Europe’s elite club tournament at Celtic Park during his time at the club, with Manchester United, AC Milan and Juventus among the heavyweight opponents who have been overcome in the distinctively frenzied atmosphere created at the stadium.
He has no doubts, however, that victory this evening would be Celtic’s greatest ever in the Champions League against a Barcelona side he feels will be more difficult to contain at home than they were on their own patch a fortnight ago. “This will be harder than the Nou Camp,” said Lennon. “The environment at Parkhead could be dangerous for us with the crowd and we have to temper the expectations. We need to be patient.
“You need patience and discipline and you need to stay on your feet. You need to not get carried away. You can’t go pressing on your own because it will just wear you down, so it needs to be a really disciplined performance again. What I would like us to do is create more chances than we did in the Nou Camp if we can and try to keep hold of the ball a little bit more and longer. But it’s easier said than done.
“I would like us to hopefully get a good start. But Barcelona always start games well. They seem to do it time and time again. They just get a rhythm to their game and we may try and disrupt that if we can.
“With having the games back to back between us in the group, Barcelona might think, ‘We really have to turn it on and put this team in their place’ after the first game over there.
“We’re up against it. I watched their away game against Benfica in the group on DVD last night. Half an hour into the game, they were 1-0 up with 70 per cent of the possession. So that’s what they do to teams away from home. They pass it so well and have complete trust and faith in one another, the way they take the ball under pressure and just know where the other player is.
“It would be Celtic’s best win ever in the Champions League if we did it. If you look at our team now, then it didn’t cost a lot of money compared to Martin O’Neill’s teams and Gordon Strachan’s teams. Also, this Barcelona side has gravitated to another level since we last played them in 2007-08. Their performances over the last five years have been at a different level to everyone else in the game.
“I’m trying not to be too negative about it, but if you go out and say, ‘Right let’s press them’, then they will pick you off. They will miss the midfield out and just go at you from wide areas. They are the best team in the world and have been for a considerable amount of time. It’s a test.”
Strachan remains irked by some criticism of Celtic’s tactics in the Nou Camp, with former Real Madrid coach Bernd Schuster and Rayo Vallecano coach Francisco Jemez both publicly condemning what they claimed was an overly negative approach from the Scottish champions.
Jemez’s comments were undermined when his team lost 5-0 at home to Barcelona in a league match a few days after Lennon’s men had run them so close. “What’s it going to be like when he [Jemez] goes to the Nou Camp?” added Lennon. “Is he going to play as open as he did at home? Because he could lose 10-0 then.
“Listen, I don’t need vindicated for how we played in Barcelona. My team did that for me. I didn’t design a plan to go out and play backs-to-the-wall football over there. That’s just the way Barcelona make you play.
“People dismiss the fact we scored three goals in Moscow a few weeks before. So, if we are defensive away from home, then why didn’t Moscow pin us back for long periods of the game? Simply because Barcelona are a superior team to Moscow.
“I think Barcelona respected the way we played. We were very strong, we were determined and tried to play when we could. I do believe the loss of Samaras just before half-time was a huge blow for us. The way we were playing with him, we were getting out at times. We weren’t playing free flowing football, but Barcelona don’t let you do that. You have to be patient, you have to wait for your moments and you have to make the most of set pieces.
“Our players are more aware of what they are going to come up against now. It’s everyone’s dream to play against Barcelona. The dream is a reality now and it’s about hard work, concentration, leg work and discipline.”
With a trip to Lisbon to face Benfica on 20 November and a home match against Spartak Moscow on 5 December to come, Lennon is upbeat about Celtic’s chances of reaching the knockout phase of the tournament, irrespective of the outcome against Barcelona tonight.