CELTIC manager Neil Lennon has warned after his team’s luckless 2-0 loss to AC Milan that the degree of difficulty in future Champions League outings will be ramped up by Barcelona, Ajax and the Italians themselves.
Lennon took comfort from his players showing they were “a good team” in dictating play for much of Wednesday’s San Siro encounter. But he conceded they would find themselves up against teams with more about them than Massimiliano Allegri’s injury-hit side demonstrated the other night.
“I’d like to think [we’ll get points but] we’ve got a bit of work to do. I think Ajax will play better football than Milan, and certainly Barcelona will, so that’s something that we’ll need to negotiate over the next three or four months.
“And to be fair to Milan, they’re short of players and they will get stronger. There’s no question of that. But we were comfortable, really comfortable in the second half. We were controlling the game, creating good chances and defensively we were on top. Even their first goal – it was going wide and it got a deflection. There’s nothing you can do about that sometimes.”
However arduous the assignments awaiting his team in Group H, Lennon is confident that he has a team that is maturing. “They’re progressing. Last season did them the world of good. Sometimes as a manager you have to look at the performance. Overall, I’m very pleased with them [and at the same time] I’m gutted for them. They were the better team and you don’t say that very often coming to Italy.”
The manager was in no doubt that the performance was of a higher calibre than some away wins recorded by Celtic in Europe in the past 16 months. “We had good control of the game. The performance in Moscow was very good in the second half. But even in Helsingborg, when we won 2-0, we had to rely on Fraser [Forster] to make a couple of good saves, but I never felt that edgy about the game in Milan.
“I know when we started off Fraser had to make a couple of stops, but they were saveable. The one that got deflected, from [Mario] Balotelli, was a great save. In the second half, I’m thinking to myself, ‘well, if we’re not going to score, just make sure we don’t get beat’.”
They couldn’t achieve that despite matching Milan for possession – Celtic had 48 per cent of the ball over the 90 minutes. “That doesn’t interest me,” Lennon said. “I knew we’d play well. I knew that I’ve got a good team. I fancied us. But at 0-0, you’re never comfortable.
“At 1-0, you’re still in the game, but the second goal . . . I don’t know what the free-kick was for. I think it was a nonsense. The boys told me Balotelli elbowed Broonie [Scott Brown] first. We had plenty of chances. We played very smart, though our crossing was poor. We hit the first man a lot or we overhit it or we were snatching at shots when we needed to show a little bit of composure. My one regret is that we didn’t score.”