PUTTING all his “eggs” into scrambling airborne attacks at set-pieces won’t be the sole means Neil Lennon uses as he attempts to give Barcelona food for thought when his Celtic team meet them in the Champions League on Wednesday night.
There was no disputing the utilitarian nature of Celtic’s possession-sacrificing approach that came within seconds of nicking a Champions League point at the Nou Camp the other week. At the club’s Lennoxtown training ground on Friday, however, Lennon offered an insight into his gameplan that revealed a certain sophistication in the defensive screening job they will be required to fixate on again in three days.
The Celtic manager was at pains to stress that his first focus will be on today’s trip to Tannadice. “The season doesn’t stop and start for Barcelona; it’s another big game,” he said. “I’ve made that pretty clear to them. I think a lot of them have been looking at this game coming up on the horizon and maybe overlooking some other games. We’ve put that to bed straight away.”
Yet, before the players repaired to their rooms in their team hotel last night ahead of facing Dundee United, it was Lennon’s intention to gather them together as a group and watch Barcelona’s home encounter with Celta Vigo. Not that the Catalan club can throw up any surprises. In Spain the other week, it was his own team he was able to see in a new light.
“I learned a lot about my players, I have to say,” confessed Lennon. “How well disciplined they can be. I was really pleased with [Emilio] Izaguirre’s performance in terms of his defending. He went one v one and did very well. An accusation that’s often labelled at him is that his defending is not the greatest. Well, he really proved that was wrong at the Nou Camp.
“When he puts his mind to it, he can put everything together and I was really pleased with his performance. There was good belief about them which, again, sometimes, you can go into these games thinking ‘Can we really do it?’ But they really did believe they could do it. Again, they are going to have to produce all of that again and likely even more. It’s a different sort of mentality going into this game because we’re at home, we will be more adventurous. But we definitely won’t be gung-ho about things. We’ll have to be well disciplined defensively, although we’ll also have to look at more onus of attack.” Not that Barça will allow that. If Celtic improve on their 24 per cent of possession from the first tie in their double-header, they will be doing well...or perhaps not, because that may have meant them playing into their opponents’ hands. Meanwhile, if Celtic improve on their 2-1 defeat from the other week, they will almost certainly guarantee themselves a shot at the Champions League last 16 when they face Spartak Moscow at home in their final group game.
With Celtic currently one point better off than Spartak and three above Benfica, ahead of those two meeting in Lisbon on Wednesday, though, the permutations are endless. Much will depend on not how much of the ball Barça have in midweek, but how the Scottish champions allow them to use it.
“I think the reality for me was that I was quite happy to concede possession because if you go chasing it they’ll just eat you,” Lennon said. “There was a period in their semi final of the Champions League against Inter Milan when they had 82 per cent possession... but Inter won. So why would it be any different for us to approach it?
“To be fair the first goal they scored against us, I think they are the only team who can score that kind of goal. The quality and pace and touch was brilliant. Coming in at half time, I was asking if we could’ve done better. But on reflection it was just a wonderful team goal. I expected for them to have the bulk of possession, I expected my goalkeeper to be busy... we were no different from any other team going to the Nou Camp. I think if you’re open, they will win convincingly, they’ll just pick you off.
“We wanted to force them wide, we wanted them to play through us... they leave the centre-halves redundant at times, but then all of a sudden they can be in on you. So we wanted to get them to the wider areas. I was quite happy for my full-backs to go one v one. If they got skinned then we’d get somebody over. I didn’t want to double up on them because when you do that they just run off you.”