DEEP down, Neil Lennon knows that Celtic have all but lost their Champions League last-16 tie even before they kick off the second leg in Turin tonight.
But, if a memorable European campaign is to come to an end for the Celtic manager and his players in the Juventus Stadium, he is determined they will make their exit with a bang rather than a whimper.
Drawing on advice from his father Gerry given during his formative years in Lurgan, Lennon revealed the source of his motivation as Celtic contend with a daunting 3-0 deficit from the first leg in Glasgow.
“If we’re going to go out, I want us to go out on our shields,” said Lennon. “It’s an old saying my Da used to say to me when I was a kid. He’d tell me to go out having given every last drop I had.
“We’ve had such a brilliant season in the Champions League, we don’t really want to go out on a flat note now. I’m not expecting to win the game 3-0 or 4-0, but I’d like us to win the game. Whether it’s 1-0 or 2-1, if we could win on the night it would be a fantastic achievement again.
“Is the tie beyond us? I’m a realist, I know it will take a minor miracle. But miracles do happen sometimes. Our lads are really up for it. I don’t think they need to restore pride here, because we’ve given a lot of pride to the club and supporters this year. But it would be nice to put a bit of respectability back into the tie.”
Lennon has divided tonight’s 90 minutes into mini-sections in his pre-match planning, setting his team a series of targets to try to achieve on the night.
“We can’t go at it gung-ho,” he added. “We need to do it brick by brick, try to get a foothold in the game, try to take the lead. If we do take the lead, can we then get another one?
“We’ll need a lot of patience as well. A clean sheet is imperative. There are so many factors going into this game. Even though a lot of people on the outside will say the tie is over, there is a lot still to play for, for us anyway.
“If we could even go in at half-time a goal up, you just never know. Obviously we’d have to defend a bit better than we did in the first game. I thought we created plenty of chances but they are a very difficult team to break down because they go back into a five and a three and the majority of goals that they do concede are either crosses or long-range shots.
“They are very difficult to play through. Even the goal Napoli scored against them the other night was a 25-yarder that got a deflection and went in. Sometimes that’s the way you have to work it against them.
“Juventus won’t be complacent but there will be a wee bit of nerves. I’m saying we won’t come out all guns blazing but the players might come out and have a right good go. We can’t be naive, we have to play with our brains as well as our hearts and try to work our way into the game. I would imagine, being at home, Juventus will have the lion’s share of possession.”
The availability of Georgios Samaras, who missed the first leg because of injury, should enhance Celtic’s performance.
The Greek striker has scored five times in the Champions League this season and has been especially effective away from home.
“He’s going to be pivotal for us,” acknowledged Lennon. “He will have to play well for us to do well.”
Celtic are seeking an eighth win of the season in the Champions League tonight, which would eclipse the club record for victories in the tournament in a single season, set by the European Cup-winning team of 1967. The Lisbon Lions’ seven wins came from just nine matches, while Lennon’s men will play their 12th fixture of the campaign tonight, but it is a landmark Samaras feels would be hugely significant.
“There are a lot of reasons and focus for us to do well here,” said Samaras. “We could become the first Celtic team to win a European match in Italy and it could also be eight wins in a season in this tournament for the first time. There are a few records and we want to change them or make them. If we don’t go through, it’s still important for us to make sure we finish on a high. It has been a great achievement to come this far. Not many people believed in us during the qualification rounds. When we were drawn against Helsingborgs and HJK Helsinki, there was maybe not great belief from people in our team but we have proved to everyone that we are a good team which can play great games at a great level. Being in the last 16 is something special for us as a team and the club.
“For sure, we won’t give up over here. We believe in ourselves and believe in our team. We are not here for a holiday in Italy to see Turin. We are going to attempt something good. If we can score a first goal early, then nobody knows how the game will go. That’s what we want. We will press them high and try to create chances, as we did in the first leg. Hopefully, this time we will score first.”