CELTIC manager Neil Lennon has scornfully dismissed opposition taunts that he has adopted a negative approach to guide his team to the cusp of qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League.
Lennon is potentially 90 minutes away from his finest achievement so far when the Scottish champions take on Benfica at the Stadium of Light in Lisbon tonight in their penultimate Group G fixture. Victory for Celtic would guarantee their place in the knockout phase, while a scoring draw would also be good enough if Spartak Moscow lose to Barcelona in the other match in the section earlier this evening.
Despite their outstanding efforts so far in the tournament, which include a 3-2 win in Moscow and the momentous 2-1 home triumph against Barcelona two weeks ago, Celtic have been subjected to criticism for the strategy deployed by Lennon.
In the build-up to tonight’s match, Benfica’s Brazilian goalkeeper Artur has branded Celtic as a defensive side who “do not play beautiful football”.
While Lennon has no need to vindicate his tactics, with his team sitting three points ahead of Benfica in Group G, he delivered a stinging retort to Artur and insisted Celtic will lack nothing in boldness and ambition against their Portuguese rivals tonight.
“You know what it’s like, if you tell a big enough mis-truth, then people will start believing it,” said Lennon. “Listen, I’m not sure the Benfica goalkeeper has even watched any of our games. He’s probably based his assumption on what he has heard, quotes from other people.
“People have called us negative in this campaign, but with around 20 minutes to go against Barcelona two weeks ago, a defender (Mikael Lustig) came off the pitch and I put on a centre forward (Tony Watt). I’ll take that all day if that’s negative.
“It worked for us that night. Some days it does, some days it doesn’t, but we were always trying to get something out the game, whether it was a win or a draw. It’ll be the same on Tuesday night here.
“I don’t think my team is built to sit in and suck it up. Yes, we did it well against Barcelona, but that was because Barcelona make you do that.
“Not many teams can get a grip of you like that and force you onto the back foot the way they do. That’s the point I’m trying to make. If we’re negative, why would I bring on a centre forward for a defender with 20 minutes to go?
“In both games against Barcelona, I started with two strikers. So we haven’t played negatively at all. And we scored three goals in two games against Barca and three in Moscow. So we’ve done okay.
“I’m not coming here for a draw, because I don’t think you can set up to play for that. We are going to go and try and win the game, like we always do. That doesn’t mean we are going to be gung-ho. We will try and play our way into the game by being as patient as we have in the previous games.
“Listen, I go out to win every game. It doesn’t always work out that way, because sometimes you have to accept that the opposition are very good. Sometimes you can be made to look ordinary when you are being pinned back.
“But that’s fine and it doesn’t mean you are negative. We will take the same sort of philosophy into this game and try to get the win. We’ll try to score, because that will be important and would put Benfica under massive pressure. We’ll see how they react to that.”
Lennon will be bolstered by the availability after injury of leading striker Gary Hooper and midfielder Joe Ledley, while Kris Commons and Georgios Samaras have both recovered from the knocks which forced them to limp out of Saturday’s 2-0 SPL win over Aberdeen at Pittodrie.
Venezuelan forward Nicolas ‘Miku’ Fedor is also fit again, while captain Scott Brown will be assessed this morning before a decision is taken on whether he leads Celtic into what could be a landmark occasion in
He has the comfort of knowing Celtic cannot be eliminated tonight, with another opportunity to progress certain to be open to his players when they take on Spartak Moscow at home in the final round of group stage fixtures on
Benfica have no such insurance policy and effectively face a win-or-bust scenario tonight ahead of their daunting final assignment against Barcelona in the Nou Camp in a fortnight.
“Benfica really only have one bite at it,” observed Lennon. “They know if we get a draw or a win, then they will be out of the
competition. I’m not saying we will be more relaxed about it, but we know that we can still take it to the last game in Glasgow.
“With Spartak kicking off earlier in the day against Barcelona, we’ll know their result before we start. If Spartak don’t win, then we know we’ve at least got European football after Christmas whatever happens, whether it’s in the Champions League or Europa League.
“That would be a good start for us, but we want to make it to the last 16 of the Champions League. We may have a second bite of the cherry if it doesn’t work out in this game, although it would good to do it at the first time of asking.”