NEIL Lennon last night hailed Celtic’s momentous Champions League victory over Barcelona as the greatest achievement of his life and admits he may never be able to scale a higher peak in his career chart.
Visibly moved by the magnitude of the 2-1 win over the Catalan giants at Parkhead, which leaves the Scottish champions promisingly placed to reach the last 16 of Europe’s elite club tournament, Lennon heaped praise on his players for writing an indelible new entry in Celtic’s history.
Goals from Victor Wanyama and teenage substitute Tony Watt put Lennon’s team 2-0 up on a pulsating night in Glasgow’s east end, resisting everything competition favourites Barcelona could throw at them until Lionel Messi pulled one back in stoppage time.
“This is up there with anything I have ever done in my life,” said an emotional and drained Lennon. “Being in the team which reached the Uefa Cup final in 2003 was pretty special, the ten years I spent under Martin O’Neill were great times, and I reached the last 16 of the Champions League as a player by beating Manchester United here.
“But as a manager, I don’t know if I’ll top this. I hope I do, that I can progress, because I’m still young and still learning. But this is right up there with anything I’ve ever achieved, not just in my football career but in my life.
“It is one of the greatest nights in the club’s recent history. It’s very poignant on our 125th anniversary, to play Barcelona in such a prestigious game and then to win the game under huge difficulties with the squad being decimated by injuries and illness.
“The players are heroes to me. I can’t speak highly enough of their performance. They will go down in the history books of the club as the team which beat probably the best team in the world.”
Without ill captain Scott Brown and the injured quartet of Emilio Izaguirre, Thomas Rogne, James Forrest and Gary Hooper, Lennon formulated a strategy which succeeded in overcoming their formidable visitors.
He sought to play down his own part in the triumph, insisting those on the pitch deserve the credit, although accepted that he and his coaching staff had targeted Barcelona’s defensive weaknesses, most notably when Wanyama headed the opener from a Charlie Mulgrew corner.
“Everyone goes on about tactics, but it’s about players,” added Lennon. “The way we set the team out thought about flooding the midfield, but decided we didn’t have enough pace in the wide areas to counter attack as well as we can.
“So we put Miku off Georgios Samaras, who we felt would need support at times. Miku did it perfectly. He was defensively good, as were the whole team.
“You can talk about tactics until you are blue in the face, but football is about the players and they covered themselves in glory tonight.
“We do prepare the team as best we can. We felt they were vulnerable from corners at the back post and we left half the box empty, hoping that Wanyama or Mikael Lustig could exploit that.
“But the delivery is so important and Charlie Mulgrew is one of the best strikers of a dead ball in British football. It was up to him to provide it. So we can give them the instructions, but it’s down to the players to make it happen. They did that tonight.
“Barcelona had good chances and Fraser Forster was fantastic when I needed him to be. You need your goalkeeper to play well and the men in front of him to be disciplined and concentrated. After we scored our first goal, we knew the storm was coming and it did. We needed some luck. Barcelona hit the bar and hit the post. So they will feel very unlucky not to get something out of the game.
“But we have just played the best team in the world and the difference is that their coach Tito Vilanova could bring on David Villa and Cesc Fabregas from the bench, while I brought on an 18-year-old kid who cost £50,000 from Airdrie United.”
Watt marked his Champions League group stage debut with a stunning goal which proved the match winner for Celtic, earning plaudits from his manager.
“It’s a phenomenal thing he has done so early in his career,” said Lennon. “I said before the game I’d have no hesitation in playing him, but, in the end, we just felt his lack of experience meant it would be a wee bit too much to put him in the starting line-up.
“But he came on and did everything we asked him to do. He scored a brilliant goal and I felt he should have had a penalty, and a sending-off for Javier Mascherano, when he got the other side of him.
“The kid is still learning, but he has written himself into the history books of the club tonight. He’s only a few games into his career and I hope he goes on to have a fruitful career.”
Celtic remain in second place in Group G, now two points
behind leaders Barcelona and three points clear of third-placed Benfica who defeated Spartak Moscow 2-0 last night.