AS HE watched Chelsea defeat Benfica in the Europa League final from the comfort of his living room on Wednesday night, Neil Lennon had cause to reflect on what might have been and also to ponder on what could yet be for Celtic in continental competition.
This Tuesday will mark the tenth anniversary of Celtic’s appearance in the 2003 Uefa Cup final in Seville when Lennon was a member of Martin O’Neill’s side beaten 3-2 in extra-time by Jose Mourinho’s Porto.
In Lennon’s mind, it remains the “one that got away”, an occasion he looks back upon with pride but also with a nagging sense that he and his team-mates missed a glorious opportunity to attain true legendary status.
As Celtic manager, Lennon has earned plaudits this season for a Champions League campaign which yielded a memorable victory over Barcelona and in which the SPL title holders reached the last 16 of the tournament at Benfica’s expense. Despite Celtic losing 5-0 on aggregate to Juventus in their last-16 tie, Lennon insists he would not have traded that experience for dropping into the Europa League and coming so close to lifting the silverware as Benfica did this week. He is also admant that Celtic are capable of making it to a European final again in the next few years.
“There’s no question about that,” said Lennon. “We had seven wins in the Champions League this season, we won away from home, we got ten points and we got out of a tough group. The foundations are here.
“Look at some of the other clubs who have made European finals in recent times – Fulham and Middlesbrough both got there. There were two very good teams in the Europa League final this year, but I look at Basel making the semi-finals and I don’t think we are too far away from matching that or even bettering it.
“Ultimately, we knocked a very good Benfica side out of the Champions League this season and in my view they were very unfortunate not to beat Chelsea on Wednesday night. For long periods, they were the dominant team.
“But I wouldn’t have swapped the last 16 of the Champions League for the chance of reaching the Europa League final. Not in a million years. I’m not sure the Europa League has the same gravitas as it once had as the Uefa Cup, whatever you want to call it.
“The Champions League is the blue riband event by a long way. However, the Europa League sort of gathers momentum once you start getting to the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final.
“Again, you just don’t know what situation you are going to be in at any stage of your season if you come out of the Champions League. If we had finished third in our group, people might have said we would then have a great chance of winning the Europa League. But there is no guarantee of that.”
Celtic’s run to the Uefa Cup final a decade ago came on the back of a painful Champions League qualifying round exit against Basel, providing Lennon with bitter-sweet memories. Henrik Larsson twice equalised for Celtic in Seville, before Porto grabbed a 115th-minute winner through Derlei.
“I still look back on it with immense pride,” he added. “Obviously, it’s always tinged with a huge feeling of disappointment as well. It was the one that got away. I felt we played well against a very strong Porto team.
“When Henrik got his second goal, we had the upper hand. We didn’t play as well as we could have done in the first half, but in the second half we were excellent. On reflection, all of the three goals we conceded could have been avoided. If you look at them in isolation, they were poor goals to give away from our point of view.
“At 2-2, I thought there was only going to be one team who would go on and win the game that night. But I do think the referee had a really poor game. When it was 11 v 11, we looked good, but then Bobo Balde was sent off. Just before that, there was a really bad challenge on Henrik which was overlooked.
“It was a clear free kick on the edge of their box. Carvalho went straight through the back of Henrik, but the ref played on and their guy then just nipped in to get the ball ahead of Bobo.
“I’m not saying that changed the flow of the game, because they never looked like scoring. But the third goal, while a lot of people have blamed Rab Douglas, there was still a lot of work to be done by Derlei before he scored and we should have defended that situation a lot better.
“I don’t want to take the gloss off something that was a really good achievement for us. But you go from being a very good team to being regarded as a great team if you win a European final. Unfortunately, we just came up a bit short. Things went against us in extra time.
“But it was a great achievement getting there and one which will live with me forever. The fact Porto went on to win the Champions League the following year shows you the calibre of team which beat us. But is also showed how good we were.
“When you consider where we started that season, getting knocked out of the Champions League by Basel, it was all doom and gloom. There was a lot of crticisim directed at our team but Basel went on to have a very fine campaign in the Champions League.
“We just got caught cold by them and that is the danger of the qualifying rounds. They were already 12 or 13 games into their season. But for us to rectify that with the run we had in the Uefa Cup was brilliant.
“We beat two English clubs, Blackburn and Liverpool. We overcame them in front of electric atmospheres in all of those games. We also knocked out some other really good sides in VfB Stuttgart and Celta Vigo.
“The stodgiest team we faced was Boavista in the semi-final. They were very defensively set up and they got the break of an own goal when they drew 1-1 with us at Celtic Park in the first leg and it was a long 90 minutes in Portugal for the second leg.
“Henrik scored in about the 80th minute over there to put us in front and after that it was the longest ten minutes I’ve ever known.
“But that was probably the best feeling I had as a Celtic player, when the final whistle went that night. The knowledge that you were going to a European final was incredible.”