HE BELIEVES the football he has watched his team play in their last two games is the finest he has witnessed since he became Celtic manager almost four years ago.
But Neil Lennon knows that the Nou Camp this evening is no place to try to emulate the free-flowing, attacking football which has just put Hearts and Motherwell to the sword with a goals aggregate of 12-0 in Celtic’s favour.
The Scottish champions will make their formal exit from European competition tonight, their hopes of further progress already extinguished by their 3-0 home defeat by AC Milan a fortnight ago.
The stark contrast between their dominance of the Scottish Premiership and struggle to keep their heads above water at Champions League level is likely to be underlined once more against Group H top seeds Barcelona tonight.
Lennon is determined that his players will leave the continental stage with their heads held high, insisting they have nothing to be ashamed of this season despite their position at the bottom of their group. “The players are playing the best football I’ve seen in my time here,” said Lennon. “I’ve got to take a lot of positives from that. This game is totally different, obviously. It’s the elephant in the room when it comes to trying to put a run of victories together. It’s Barcelona away and they don’t come any more difficult than that.
“People say ‘go and have a go at it’, but that’s a very difficult thing to do against Barcelona when they are at home. I watched footage of them on DVD on Monday and even in the game when they lost to Bilbao recently, the football they played was spectacular at times. We would like to finish the campaign on a high in some form but what I’m looking for more than anything else is a performance. That will take a lot of discipline and concentration and it will take a lot of legs as well. But I think the players are all aware of that.
“It’s not as though Barcelona are an unfamiliar team to us. This is the fourth time in two years we’ve played them. We will try and be as positive as we can. Psychologically, the shackles are off. They have an opportunity to go and express themselves when they can. But that’s still a very difficult thing to do when you know Barcelona will have the bulk of possession. They work you, so it’s down to what we do when we have the ball. It’s about how we affect them when we have it.
“I have no recourse (sic) with the players’ efforts in Europe this season whatsoever. They have done the club very proud. This is a great occasion for them. You want to enjoy the occasion but you only do that if you play well and get something out of the game. We don’t want to come here and get well beaten without laying a glove on them. The players have to have that at the back of their minds. The pressure is off them but they need to go and do themselves and the club justice.
“We have played very well in the three previous games against Barca over the last two years and there is no reason why we cannot do that again. The players know what’s required. I hope they don’t think they are just coming here to fulfil a fixture, because they’re not. If that’s the case, they’ll be in for a very rough night, very early.
“There is pride in terms of trying to finish with as many points as we can in the group. But as far as the players are concerned, they’ve done everything that was asked of them. They did that by qualifying for the group stage and then by competing. There have been disappointments, sure. In the first AC Milan game away from home, the performance wasn’t disappointing but the result was. But we created chances that night and at that level you have to take them. We didn’t do that and that’s why we are where we are now.”
Lennon is without the suspended Emilio Izaguirre tonight, forcing a change at left-back which could see Charlie Mulgrew drop back into that position. Adam Matthews, available again after missing the last ten games through injury, could return in an attacking midfield role. “We’ll need good running power in the team and we need to strike a balance,” said Lennon. “I’ll think about that over the next 24 hours.”
Celtic welcome back their captain Scott Brown after his three-match Uefa suspension for an off-the-ball kick at Barcelona’s Brazilian forward Neymar when the teams met at Parkhead on matchday two of the campaign. “Scott will be motivated to get playing at this level again,” added Lennon. “He has been so good this season. The three-game ban really hurt him and it hurt us as well. So I think he will go out, not to prove anything to anyone, just to be performing at this level again.
“I think we would have performed better in Amsterdam with him in the team and at home against Milan as well. This isn’t me saying ‘it’s his fault’. It’s just an unfortunate heat-of-the-moment incident which happens to us all.
“For me, our discipline in Europe has actually been exemplary. It was a nick from Scott against Barca and then a misplaced tackle from Nir Biton when he was sent off against Ajax.
“It’s very harsh that we have had two red cards when you look at it. We are not that kind of team at all.”
Barcelona need just a point to win Group H and although without the suspended Cesc Fabregas and injured Lionel Messi, they are boosted by the return of Spanish midfield maestros Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta from injury. “They rank alongside any midfield players in the history of the game,” said Lennon, his eulogy coming from personal experience of having played against the pair during his on-field career.
“They were out of this world to play against. Xavi, in particular, can buy himself time through his awareness on the pitch. He is never under pressure. The minute he gets the ball, he knows how to move his body into position to find a pass or find someone. He has been doing it for the last ten to 12 years at the highest level. Both he and Iniesta are just wonderful to watch. Their speed of thought, speed of mind and speed of pass are second to none.”