CELTIC manager Neil Lennon last night labelled his team’s qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League “miraculous” but believes it should not be the limit of their ambitions in the tournament.
On a tense and dramatic evening at Celtic Park, an 81st-minute penalty converted by Kris Commons earned the Scottish champions a 2-1 win over Spartak Moscow. With Benfica drawing 0-0 with Barcelona in the Nou Camp, it meant Celtic leapfrogged the Portuguese side to finish runners-up in Group G and reach the knockout phase of the competition for the first time in four years.
Celtic will now face one of the seven group winners when the last 16 draw is made in Nyon on 20 December – Manchester United, Paris St Germain, Borussia Dortmund, Malaga, Schalke, Bayern Munich or Juventus.
It is rarefied company for Lennon and his players, their achievement amplified by the failure of wealthier clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City to qualify from the group stage. Celtic also made it with a ten-point tally, their highest ever.
“It means the world to me,” said Lennon. “Obviously, I’m a young manager in my first year in the Champions League so to qualify with ten points is fantastic. I’m very proud of the players, they have performed a miracle. No-one gave us a prayer coming into this group but we have qualified and deservedly so.
“We’re there and we are going to enjoy it. We want to progress as far as we can in the competition. Who knows where that will take you? The spirit is fantastic and we have some quality players. They have put everything into the campaign and they have grown as it has gone on. Some of them have enhanced their reputations no end.
“But as a collective they have great belief in themselves and who knows where that could take us. These are very exciting times for everyone at the club and now we have something to really get our teeth into in the New Year.
“I’d like to play Malaga in the next round. It will be nice at that time of the year! Seriously, it’s going to be really tough against one of the top teams from the other groups.
“You just don’t know what shape things will be in in two or three months time. We will look forward to the draw but I want the players to concentrate on domestic duties now and start finding that real consistency in the SPL.
“They have shown what they can do at European level and a lot of them have put their focus into this campaign. Now they can put that to one side for a few months and really start tidying up domestic matters.”
Lennon admitted he struggled to cope with the nerves surrounding the occasion and was unable to watch when Commons stepped up for the crucial spot-kick, Gary Hooper’s first half opener for Celtic having been cancelled out by Spartak’s Brazilian striker Ari.
“I turned my back on it,” said Lennon. “I’ve seen the last couple of penalties and we’ve missed them so I thought better of it this time. I just waited for the roar to go up. But Kris showed great mental strength. He was obviously aware of the significance of the penalty but his penalty epitomised him tonight. He had a fantastic game. The tension was horrible at times. I tried to stay calm, but inside my stomach was churning.
“The team have probably performed above all expectations. I said at the start, and people laughed at me, that my target was to qualify. I could see my players progressing last year. We have some really talented players here who we felt could play at European level.
“This is the premier event and this club has had some rough times in it in the past. But we are unbeaten at home. We showed great composure and, at times, when it was backs to the wall, we showed great defensive qualities.
“So, as a team, they have
performed brilliantly but, by winning tonight, they have justified beating Barcelona 2-1 here earlier in the group. I didn’t want them to be the team who were just remembered for beating Barcelona. But now they’ve beaten Barcelona and qualified for the last 16. That is a fantastic feather to have in their cap.”
Lennon hopes that extra finance from further progress in the Champions League will help secure Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama on new contracts.
“If we could that, it would be fantastic,” added Lennon. “I’m not sure any players will want to leave in January now, not with what we have ahead of us. We have built a decent team who are young and hungry. They are not fazed by the financial side of it, although they have probably made a few quid tonight.
“They want to get better. They have done the club proud, the shareholders proud, the supporters proud and me and my backroom staff very proud. So it is a great night.
“We will enjoy it, but you can only enjoy it as a manager for a few hours and then I’m thinking about Kilmarnock on Saturday.
“But it’s nice to have it on my record. It’s only Gordon Strachan who had done it before but I have a long way to go to emulate him or Martin O’Neill, who was a huge influence on my career as well. Both of them have been great role models for me, on and off the field. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them, particularly Martin. I spoke to him on Tuesday and I think he’ll be pretty proud of me and delighted for us all.
“It’s not been easy at times. There are great expectations on you. Getting into this Champions League campaign was very important for myself, to see where I could take it.”