IT WOULD be easy to pat Neil Lennon on the back and tell him that, whatever happens to his team in their three remaining Champions League group games, his Celtic side have again defied expectations.
Plenty folk thought, with key players sold, that the Scottish champions would come a cropper in the qualifiers – and, let’s not forget, they almost did. Even allowing for their ten-point haul in last year’s group stage, which saw them progress to the last 16, plenty of others scoffed about their prospects of scavenging any sort of win when ranged against Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax. Now, they are seeking to do a Dutch double in Amsterdam this week, following the home win over Ajax with which they completed the first round of matches. It was a three-game series in which only Barcelona really could be set apart from the other Group H clubs.
Lennon, though, is simply not interested in being patronised. He wants progress. When put to him at Lennoxtown the other day that it was a testament to his team that there had proven to be so little between them and the other sides in his section, the subtext of that set him off and sparked the following exchange.
“Why is it a testament?” he shot back. “Why can’t we be a good team in the Champions League? Just because we play in Scotland?”
Perhaps because it is a backwater and players don’t want to come here, it was suggested.
“I wouldn’t be a great lover of going to Donetsk but Shakhtar Donetsk have been a pretty good Champions League team over the years,” answered Lennon.
But look at Shakhtar’s wage bill (believed to be almost quadruple Celtic’s, with £31 million forked out on two Brazilians in the summer).
“I know, yes. Listen, there is no question we are punching above our weight, but why not? We are in the competition and we crave it. Everyone in this room craves it. The fans crave it, the people in Scotland crave it, as do I as a manager and the players. It’s the be all and end all, really. It is the premier one and I don’t want to go out. I want to qualify. It’s good, the players are turning heads. The last couple of years now have given great exposure to the club. It’s good for the reputation of the game here as well, I think. I don’t want to tempt fate because you could end up getting a drubbing from one of these teams sooner rather than later, but the one thing we wanted to be was competitive in the group and we have certainly done that. There has been nothing that much in the games, although they are class teams. There is no question they have class players and the difference sometimes is you get what you pay for.”
Sometimes you get much more than you pay for, however. Much more than you have any reasonable right to expect. Consider the players that will be the creative anchors for Lennon in the Amsterdam Arena for a game that Celtic really must win if they are to retain any hopes of reaching the Champions League knockout stage. Charlie Mulgrew returned to Celtic as an average defender. On Wednesday he will continue in his role as assured midfield playmaker, the man his manager expects to be the team’s “calming” influence. Kris Commons – not the most potent of wingers when he signed – will be deployed in the No.10 role as both threat and funnel for the club’s attacks.
There is no great mystery that these two players will be given crucial roles since they have looked as if they belong in this most prestigious of football environments. It is easy to forget what a remarkable turnaround this represents in their careers. Little more than five years ago, both were playing in the third tier of English football, Mulgrew packed off to Southend United on loan in early 2008 after failing to settle at Wolverhampton Wanderers. He found himself in League One alongside Commons, who was helping Nottingham Forest engineer an escape.
Mulgrew, a free transfer, and Commons, a £315,000 buy, now perform roles for their club in continental competition that they wouldn’t be guaranteed from buys in the £6m bracket. “That just comes with confidence and belief,” Lennon said. “We see them, we look at them. We looked at Charlie last year and decided he could play in midfield. He is good on the ball, he can take up that central position where he doesn’t have to go box to box but he can sit, break the play up and really get us passing. Since Ki [Sung-Yueng, who left in 2012], we haven’t really had that feeler of the ball but Charlie can certainly do that. And he has grown into that role. He is intelligent, he has adapted well to it. He has that composure, like all of those players at that level. He buys himself a bit of time on the ball. When there’s all the hurly burly going on he gets his foot on the ball and picks a pass. Charlie will be very important to the way we play.
“And Kris, because he is not the quickest, is better in that central position just off the striker. In games last year he was really disciplined for us when he played wide, although he wasn’t much of a threat for us going that way [forward], he did a good job defensively. Whereas now, when you want to get him in the game, he is probably best playing just off the striker. Right foot, left foot, he is a danger and he can pick a pass as well.”
Lennon was talked about as an English Premier League manager-in-waiting last week by club chief executive Peter Lawwell. One reason why that will surely be his destiny is that he can pick a player. Alongside Mulgrew and Commons, another fast becoming a Champions League stalwart for the club is Virgil van Dijk, a Dutch defender overlooked by the big hitters in his home nation before Celtic stepped in to pay £2.2m to FC Groningen in the summer. Van Dijk’s central-defensive understanding with Efe Ambrose is one reason why Celtic can dare to consider progressing from Group H.
“We didn’t envisage Kelvin [Wilson] leaving. But Efe and Virgil have forged a very good partnership,” the Celtic manager added. “They’ve enhanced us, there’s no question, with the fact they are proficient with the ball, two fantastic athletes and they are low maintenance. Their recovery from games is very good. But, of course, the most important thing is they are good defenders. Virgil will head it as well, he likes the blood and snotters side of it too. Efe will head it. So they’ve formed a really good partnership up until now and I’ve been delighted with them. I think Virgil could be anything he wants to be. Efe signed a long-term contract, which I was really pleased about. He’s started to show great consistency in his game. The two of them have been formidable for us.
“I don’t know why other Dutch clubs didn’t try to sign him. He looks languid at times, he maybe has that lackadaisical style. But, when he goes through the gears he’s very quick, he’s powerful. He’s a good defender which, first and foremost, is what you want. But he’s got all of these other attributes. Two-footed, can play, and has a shot in him – he’s been unlucky not to score so far.
“When I first saw him I thought ‘Wow’. He looked a really good player. At first you wonder if there’s something you’re missing. But I knew we had to keep on watching him. We watched him against Ajax and Johan [Mjallby, Celtic assistant manager] came back and said he’d played well, that he rated him. Then I watched him in a play-off game. I wondered what he’d be like pace-wise because he just looked like a big stroller. But then there was a ball over the top of him and he just eased through the gears and got to it. I was straight on the phone after that and making it clear we had to sign him. He’s going to be important for us in the next month or so.”