IT IS nine years since Celtic suffered their only home defeat to date in the group stage of the Champions League.
That night in 2004, when Henrik Larsson delivered the coup de grace in a 3-1 Barcelona victory on his return to Parkhead, was an education for Neil Lennon who was still plying his trade at the heart of Celtic’s midfield.
It was a lesson he learned well and which has helped him extend Celtic’s remarkable home record in the tournament as manager. Including the memorable 2-1 victory over Barcelona last season, the Scottish champions have won 15 of their 21 group stage games at Parkhead.
Having lost their opening Group H fixture this season to AC Milan in Italy two weeks ago, it would seem imperative that Celtic maintain that near-invincibility on their own patch if they hope to qualify for the knockout phase.
But Lennon, who regards the current Barcelona side as superior to the one which imperiously swatted aside the team he played for in 2004, insists tonight is not necessarily a “must win” scenario for Celtic.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Lennon. “It’s also important that we try to get something away from home in the group.
“We know going to the Nou Camp against Barcelona will be very difficult, but if we are going to get something away from home we have to look at the game against Ajax in Amsterdam.
“We can’t keep just relying on our home form, although if we do get three wins out of three here in this group, I will take that now.
“But sooner or later we will get beat at home. The longer we are in this competition, eventually something will give at home.
“I know how difficult it is against Barcelona. They were the first team to beat us here. We got it back to 1-1 at one point that night, but we were never really in the game because they were just so good.
“That was a real eye opener. But we had beaten them the year before in the Uefa Cup and they’re a far better team now than they were then. So it’s important that myself and Johan Mjallby have that experience of having played against Barcelona and can let the players know that there are going to be bad moments in this game and there are going to be spells of pressure.
“Hopefully, watching the game from last season again over the weekend will have given the players reminders that we won. It was brilliant, but it was also really, really hard to do.”
To repeat the feat, Lennon believes he will require optimum performance levels from every player he selects tonight. But he is looking to three men in particular as the key to overcoming Barcelona…the trio who are the spine of his side – goalkeeper Fraser Forster, captain Scott Brown and forward Georgios Samaras.
“We’ll need our goalie to play well,” said Lennon. “There’s no question that Barcelona will create chances and there’s no question that Fraser will have to make saves at big moments in the game.
“He enjoys the big nights. I thought he was great in Milan. He is playing very well at the moment and I’m hoping this competition will push him forward more for an England place.
“It’s just my crappy opinion, you don’t have to agree with it, but of the goalkeepers I’ve seen I think he is one of the best in the Champions League.
“Some of the saves he makes, other ’keepers can’t do it. For a guy of his physique, he is very, very agile. When he really puts his mind to it, he is brilliant at keeping that ball out of the net. Some of the saves me makes, you are like ‘How does he do that?’ I’m going to need him to do that again on Tuesday night.
“Scott Brown has surprised me this season, given the problems he has had previously with injury. His movement is very pleasing, he looks really strong again in his running and his football is getting better and better.
“I ask him if he can play at this level, if he has got the technique to take it on at this level, and he is coming up with the answers. He was outstanding in Milan. He has no fear now at Champions League level. He has got that maturity and presence about him that all good midfielders have in this competition.
“Samaras also loves the challenge of playing against the quality of opposition in the Champions League. It floats his boat, really. He has been very consistent in Europe now for the last 18 months or so, which is something we couldn’t say about him before.
“He is in his late 20s now and is one of the leaders in the team. If we are to get something out of the game, I am going to need all his capabilities. What I like about him is the longer the games go on, the stronger he seems to get.
“He is quite an incredible athlete when he puts his mind to it. He can relieve a bit of pressure with those runs he makes. I don’t think Barcelona fear any opponents, but they will be wary of Georgios. I thought he was a real handful for them in the Nou Camp last season. He got his goal, which gave him a lift, then he started causing them all sorts of problems. When he went off, we lost a lot of momentum.”
One thing Lennon is keen to deny Barcelona tonight is early momentum. He regards the way the Catalan side start matches as the biggest danger to Celtic’s prospects of putting the first points on the board in Group H.
“We are not going to have a lot of the ball, let’s not kid ourselves,” he added. “We are not going to go toe to toe with them and try to play them at their own game, because that’s suicide. We will have to play a British type game. We have to play our way and the best way we can to contain them.
“We must be in the game for the first 20-25 minutes because they do start games like a house on fire. They were 3-0 up after 40 minutes in Valencia recently, then 3-0 up after 15 minutes against Real Sociedad, so they can kill you very quickly and we have to be switched on from the start.”