WHEN Neil Lennon sends his team into Champions League last 16 combat tonight, he will do so under the UK-wide gaze of a terrestrial television audience.
The irony of Celtic’s highest profile match for five years being screened live by ITV is not lost on their manager.
For, when the group stage draw was made five months ago, Lennon and his squad were dismissed out of hand by the same national broadcaster. “Bye bye Celtic – they’ve drawn Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow”, read the infamous ITV tweet which so irritated Lennon at the time.
He has had the last laugh, his own faith in his players dramatically vindicated by securing second place in the group behind a Barcelona side they memorably defeated 2-1 at Celtic Park. The venue will be in a ferment again this evening as the Scottish champions seek to extend their Champions League adventure even further at the expense of a highly-regarded Juventus side.
Celtic will be in the role of underdogs again, their prospects of making it to the quarter-finals rated as slim by the majority of pundits. But Lennon believes they have altered the kind of perceptions which prompted ITV to be so disparaging about them.
“It was just a cheap shot,” reflected Lennon. “It was born out of ignorance and that is something we have had to put up with now for a long time. I don’t need to use that for this game. I don’t really need to motivate the players, because they know what is at stake and they also know how much they have put in to get here.
“We have caught a lot of people’s attention We have been under-estimated as a physical, up and at them British-type team. That is exactly what we are not. We have skilful, technical players in our team and on a big pitch against quality opposition, we know they can perform.
“There has been more respect towards us from the mainstream media down south since then and we have got good coverage. We were sort of seen as a novelty in the Champions League but people now see us a pretty serious team and club.
“They talk down the SPL at times, they see it as a one-team league. Yes, we are 18 points clear at the minute but look at England, Germany and Spain and there is only one team going to win those leagues as well. They are allegedly the three biggest leagues in Europe.”
If Lennon justifiably feels Celtic belong among European football’s elite, he is also acutely aware of how difficult it will be for him to maintain the standards set in the Champions League this season. “To qualify for the last 16 was the best thing I’ve done in a managerial sense,” he added. “To get out of the group with ten points was fantastic. We might never get this opportunity again.
“I don’t want people thinking this is going to be an annual thing, because it’s a very difficult thing to do. So we have to maximise our opportunities. We might never get here again. Gordon Strachan did it two years in a row here in 2007 and 2008, big Eck (Alex McLeish) did it with Rangers the year before that. So it was almost as if it was going to be a foregone conclusion every year. But it’s such a difficult ride to get here. We have to make the most of it now.
“We have to enjoy these moments and enjoy these nights. It’s nice for everyone in the stadium to enjoy it – the players have to play. Sometimes they are not enjoyable occasions because it is extremely hard work.
“Qualification was the target, then to see what the group brought. When the draw was made, it was three of us going for second place behind Barcelona. We’ll see what Juventus bring and hopefully find a way of playing against them.
“We have looked at their strengths and weaknesses. There are not many weaknesses in their team. It is very difficult to play through them. They have a lot of good players. Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba are very good in midfield, while Andre Pirlo is still in great condition. He has been playing at the highest level now for the last 11 or 12 years and has been a great signing for Juventus. Their coach probably turned a lot of heads by bringing him in but he has been pivotal to their success.”
Lennon does not necessarily regard subduing Pirlo’s influence as a definitive strand of his game plan, but he does see the contribution of his own key midfield players as crucial. It could be a war of attrition at times in midfield,” he said. “There are fantastic athletes there. We have got Scott Brown and Victor Wanyama up against guys like Pogba, Vidal and Claudio Marchisio. It’s going to be a real battle in there.”
Ever since Celtic overcame Helsingborgs in the final qualifying round to reach the group stage, their support have serenaded them with a chant which declares they will be at Wembley for the final in May. It is a scenario Lennon cannot begin to envisage but he takes delight in having made it even remotely possible.
“We have given the fans something to believe again, something to dream about,” he added. “That’s been missing for a long time at this club. So we have given them something to hold on to. I’m sure most of them do it in jest. In the bottom of their hearts, they probably don’t really believe we will get to Wembley. But they can dream about it now. We have given them that opportunity again, which is fantastic.
“We are a million miles away from it. Even at the semi-final stage, you are a million miles away from it. We are in the last 16, it’s fantastic. We want to go further. Can we do it? Well, we will see on Tuesday night.
“I believe we can go further. There’s no point just turning up. I was laughed at when I said I wanted to get through the group. But I wanted to qualify. Now we’ve qualified, I want to reach the last eight.”
PAST MEETINGS: HOME ADVANTAGE
CELTIC 1 JUVENTUS 0
(European Cup first round first leg, September 1981)
Celtic midfielder Murdo MacLeod handed Billy McNeil’s side a memorable first-leg win against Giovanni Trapattoni’s men in the opening round of the 1981-82 European Cup. MacLeod’s effort deceived Dino Zoff in the 65th minute after Davie Provan’s corner had put the Juve defence under pressure. Future Celtic manager Liam Brady was among the visiting team alongside the core of the Italy side who would go on to win the World Cup the following summer - Zoff joined by Gaetano Scirea, Antonio Cabrini, Claudio Gentile and Marco Tardelli.
JUVENTUS 2 CELTIC 0
(European Cup first round second leg, September 1981)
Celtic’s hopes of completing a famous victory were dashed in the first half in Turin. Pietro Virdis netted the opener when Pat Bonner could not keep out his long-range effort following a strong run and Roberto Bettega turned and volleyed home the winner.
JUVENTUS 3 CELTIC 2
(Champions League group stage, September 2001)
Celtic suffered one of their cruellest European defeats when Nicola Amoruso’s controversial late penalty handed Juventus three points after Martin O’Neill’s side had come back from two goals down. David Trezeguet’s double put Juve in command but Stiliyan Petrov’s deflected effort and an 85th-minute Henrik Larsson penalty brought Celtic level. With Edgar Davids sent off following a series of fouls, Celtic sensed victory but Amoruso threw himself to the ground under the attention of Joos Valgaeren and German referee Helmut Krug pointed to the spot. Amoruso converted the last-minute spot-kick and O’Neill was sent to stand for protesting against the “extraordinary” decision.
CELTIC 4 JUVENTUS 3
(Champions League group stage, October 2001)
Celtic needed to win to have any chance of progressing to the last 16 and were inspired by Lubomir Moravcik as they beat Marcello Lippi’s team. Alessandro Del Piero opened the scoring with a wonderful free-kick but Valgaeren and Chris Sutton converted Moravcik crosses to give Celtic a half-time lead. Trezeguet equalised but Larsson’s penalty and an emphatic strike by Sutton put Celtic back in control. Trezeguet scored again but Celtic held on only for Porto to beat them to second spot in the group with victory over Rosenborg.