NEIL Lennon is allowing himself to indulge in the realms of fantasy football as he tries to plot a repeat of the Champions League fairytale he scripted for Celtic last season.
The Scottish champions are rated 8-1 long shots to beat Barcelona in Glasgow tonight, the bookmakers clearly adhering to the old adage of lightning never striking twice.
Lennon admits Celtic need to be wary of illustrious opponents who are determined to set the record straight after suffering that stunning 2-1 defeat at Parkhead last November. But the Celtic manager has faith in his players’ capacity to deliver another famous result.
“I dare to dream it, oh yes,” said Lennon. “Whether we can do it or not, I don’t know, but we’ll do everything we possibly can to do that.
“The win last year came right out of left field, but the performance against Barcelona in the Nou Camp beforehand, when we were unlucky not to take a point, gave the players great belief.
“We are at home, which always gives us an advantage no matter who we are playing. It can really lift you to another level and that’s what I’m hoping the atmosphere and occasion will do again.”
Lennon has hinted that Anthony Stokes, who was yesterday recalled to the Republic of Ireland squad, may face fresh big occasion disappointment tonight by being left out of his starting line-up. Despite a positive performance in the central striker role when Celtic lost their Group H opener 2-0 to AC Milan in the San Siro last month, Stokes may have to settle for a place on the bench as Lennon looks to his European talisman Georgios Samaras against Barcelona. “If we are going to get something out of the game, I am going to need all of Georgios’s capabilities – his height, his physical presence and his running power,” said Lennon.
“These games inspire him and he likes to play on his own up there. You just say to him ‘Go and do your thing’. We played him up there in both games against Barcelona last season.
“Anthony did well in Milan and is playing well. He deserves his call-up for Ireland.
“He’s worked very hard to get back into this position, but whether he plays tomorrow night, we haven’t made that decision. If he doesn’t, he will have a part to play as the game wears on.”
Lennon is also ready to take a risk on the readiness of Scotland winger James Forrest who only returned to full training at the weekend after recovering from a virus with which he spent five days in hospital. Welsh international Adam Matthews has recovered from the illness which forced him off the field before half-time in Saturday’s 5-2 league win at Kilmarnock.
“James will come into contention,” added Lennon. “He will give us extra zip out wide. Unfortunately, Derk Boerrigter is not going to make it, so we’ve gained one and lost one in the wide positions.
“We are limited in our choices, but we were limited against Barcelona last year as well. We didn’t have Gary Hooper and didn’t have Scott Brown for this game last year, so you make do with what you’ve got and make the most of them.
“We have to be cute in our game management. I’ve more or less got my plan in place. Because my hands are tied a little bit, I’m hoping Forrest will make it. We will see how he is tomorrow. It would be a gamble to start him but sometimes I like to take those gambles.”
Lennon admitted to mixed emotions over Lionel Messi’s non-participation tonight, the Argentinean maestro having suffered a hamstring injury in Barcelona’s league win at Almeria on Saturday. Although pleased at not having to face the world’s pre-eminent player, Lennon recognises that his absence removes some lustre from the match.
But he is wary of the alternatives available to Barca coach Gerardo Martino. “It was six of one and half a dozen of the other when I heard Messi was out,” said Lennon. “I’m delighted for selfish reasons that he is not playing. But for the game itself and the occasion, I’m a bit gutted he is not playing.
“Will Barcelona be a little bit different without him? Neymar has come in and I have seen a big improvement in Alexis Sanchez this season. Will it be Neymar and Pedro or Neymar and Sanchez?
“They don’t really change the way they play anyway. The only difference is they won’t have the wee man. Any team would be less effective if they lost Messi. Barcelona are no different. He is huge. But if you look at the games they have played without him, they have won the majority of them anyway.
“They can’t rely on him to pull it out of the bag all the time. They have Neymar, Cesc Fabregas, a lot of others who can do it too.
“We know what’s coming. I don’t know if Barcelona’s pride was hurt by losing here last year. But I know they will be coming here highly motivated. They will want to qualify from the group as quickly as possible. But the experience for me and players from last year is fresh. So we will be prepared.”