HE has been anxious to pile all the credit on his players, but Celtic manager Neil Lennon has himself come in for high praise throughout football for masterminding the Scottish champions’ victory over Barcelona on Wednesday night.
Such was the tactical nous displayed by Lennon’s Celtic that it might be presumed that many days or weeks went into planning the downfall of one of the greatest club sides ever to visit Scotland. Not a bit of it. The ‘narrow game’ 4-4-1-1 formation that thwarted Barca was decided on just a few hours before the Champions League anthem sounded around Celtic Park.
“We came up with them in the afternoon,” revealed Lennon. “We debated whether to play 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 and pack the midfield but you need pace in wide areas if you are going to counter-attack. With respect, Charlie Mulgrew and Kris Commons are not as quick as James Forrest and Georgios Samaras, so speaking to [coaches] Johan Mjallby and Garry Parker, we were wondering if we’d get out if we went 4-5-1. Would Sami be isolated up there? He’s great on the counter-attack but would we get the support to him? The other thing was that the supporters would be sick of seeing the ball being recycled and Barcelona getting it. It can be dispiriting for the players as well.
“So we wanted Miku to be a link between the midfield and Georgios and get support to him as best he could. I think Miku played wonderfully well. He did everything we asked of him and more. Our options were getting shorter and shorter. We were waiting on Scott Brown [he had a virus] to see if he would be fit to play and, about 2.30pm, it was clear he wasn’t. But it was all down to the players. It’s all about them.”
That’s true, but messages of congratulation from the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Noprthern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill, not to mention Sir Elton John, show that, across football, Lennon’s achievement was noted. Barcelona, too, were magnanimous in defeat, as Lennon explained: “They are a class act from top to bottom and that’s the way I want our club to be as well – humble in victory and gracious in defeat.”
The manager knows he needs to get his players grounded before their home match against St Johnstone tomorrow. Lennon said: “We talk about the European nights and that was one of the greatest, in terms of the atmosphere and the occasion, and all the ingredients of the 125th anniversary as well, but what I want is not just for people to talk about the great atmosphere, I want them to talk about the team. I think we’ve got that, people are talking about the players, and rightly so. Now they’ve got to come back down to earth.
“We haven’t achieved anything yet, apart from the seven points which could be very precious to us, but all four teams can still qualify from the group so we need to be judged on the six games and not just the four. We should enjoy these moments. I want them back to work tomorrow to prepare for St Johnstone as best they can but I do want them to enjoy these couple of days because it is very special.
“The reality of it is that there is a lot to do in this season if we want to achieve what we want to achieve. We have taken one point out of six in the league, so that is disappointing for me and I want is to get back to winning games again in the SPL as quickly as possible.”
Lennon will really earn his corn if he can keep his players ‘up’ after the high of Wednesday: “That is really the challenge for me. But there might still be some feelgood factor and confidence left over, so maybe the best thing for them will be to just get back out there and play again and just feed off the confidence they’ve gained over the last couple of days. But we will be able to gauge it tomorrow when we see them again.”
Brown is a serious doubts for tomorrow, while Gary Hooper hopes to back for the next Champions League match in Portugal against Benfica – “as tough as a visit to the Nou Camp”. Lennon singled out for praise Victor Wanyama, Adam Matthews, Joe Ledley and goalkeeper Fraser Forster, and knows he will find it difficult to keep richer clubs away.
His personal ambitions remain hidden: “In a few years’ time I don’t know where I will be, whether I am here or not. I just take it as it comes and, like [majority shareholder] Dermot Desmond says, I am a ‘work in progress.’ I keep striving to get better and make the team better.”
He did that on Wednesday, no question. St Johnstone manager Steve Lomas, who watched the match on television, was full of praise for Celtic as he plots a way to try and bring them back down to earth. “They did very well. I thought tactically and how they went about it was top notch,” said Lomas. “Barcelona had the majority of possession, but they worked very hard, as a group stayed very compact and conceded the wide areas because they know Barcelona don’t cross too many [balls]. It was a great atmosphere as well. Celtic Park was bouncing.”
The comparison may be crude, but Celtic could be performing the Barcelona role, with Saints performing the role of the underdog, this weekend. Lomas added: “Nine times out of ten you go to Celtic Park and they have the lion’s share of possession, but there are many ways to skin a cat.”