NEIL Lennon has urged his players to seize what he feels may be a once in a lifetime chance to reach the last 16 of the Champions League with Celtic when they face Spartak Moscow in Glasgow tonight.
What has been a dramatic and thrilling Group G campaign for the Scottish champions promises to deliver a tense conclusion at a sold-out Celtic Park, where victory alone may not be enough to take Lennon’s men into the knockout phase of Europe’s elite tournament.
Celtic’s destiny is not in their own hands as they must hope to better Benfica’s result away to group winners Barcelona in the evening’s other matchday six fixture. It means Celtic could reach the 10-point mark in a Champions League group for the first time and still not progress.
But Lennon remains optimistic that a win over Spartak can provide him with what would be the finest achievement of his career so far and is determined his players will not allow their earlier heroics, in the shape of a first-ever away win in the competition in Moscow and the 2-1 home defeat of Barcelona, to go unrewarded.
“We’ve got to go for it,” said Lennon. “This is the players’ moment and they might never get this opportunity again. I am not going to put extra pressure on them, I just want them to go and play as we can at home on a European night, aggressively and with a good tempo to the game.
“We have got players who can score goals. We’ve got flair players in the team who can rise to the occasion. So you are hoping that will all encompass itself on the one night. They are capable of doing it. Spartak are a dangerous team but they haven’t got the calibre of Barcelona. I’m not too sure they have the structure of Benfica, either, or the way they play. But they do have a lot of flair in their team as well.
“The first year I played in the Champions League for Celtic under Martin O’Neill, we got nine points,” added Lennon. “Then we got nine points under Gordon Strachan – years we made the last 16. So to get ten points would show remarkable consistency over six the games.
“For me, it would be a vindication of winning in Moscow and beating Barcelona as well. It’s funny, because this hasn’t really had the same sort of build up of a huge game. Certainly not the same kind of hype which surrounded the Barcelona game, even though there is more importance on this one.
“It would be the best achievement I’ve had as a manager. You always want to win the domestic league but to get through this Champions League group with the group of players we have would be tremendous.It wouldn’t count for nothing if we didn’t get into the last 16, but the main aim is to progress in the competition so, if we didn’t progress, it would be disappointing.
“But we would still have made progress in Europe this season and we would have the Europa League in the New Year anyway. But we all want the big one. It wouldn’t dilute what we’ve done, but the games wouldn’t mean as much as they would if we did go through.
“No-one would have given us a chance in this competition at the start but we have turned a lot of heads and the performances have shown the club are a force to be reckoned with again. But, to really enhance the season and to put us back in that really big picture, we need qualification. That would justify all of it. There is the bar they have set, they know they can achieve it. What’s stopping them from doing that? It’s their time.”
Lennon insists he cannot afford to concern himself with events at the Nou Camp, where Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova has confirmed he will be resting several key players. The good news for Celtic, however, is that Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi will face Benfica.
“I just have to try to make sure we win our own game,” added Lennon. “I have to focus on that.
“If Benfica win in Barcelona, so be it. We would have to congratulate them on doing that. That would be a magnificent effort from their point of view. We have to make them win, so the onus is on us to win at home. Of course Benfica could win. There is always that scenario with the unpredictability of football. While that is at the back of our mind, right at the forefront of it is winning our game.
“It will be difficult, it will be tense. We are playing a Spartak team who are coming here with nothing to really play for but their pride.
“They are very dangerous coming forward but they do concede goals. So it is there for us. I’m not saying we will win it but, if we play as well as we can, we have a good chance.”
Despite having nothing to play for, Spartak caretaker coach Valery Karpin insisted last night that his side will not be taking the game lightly.
“No, we will take this as a serious game and there will be no place for experiments, except with maybe two or three players,” said Karpin, whose second spell in charge of Spartak began on Friday night with a 4-2 home defeat to Zenit St Petersburg in the Russian Premier League.
“We have a lot of things to prove and it us up to the players to prove they are
up to the challenge. This is
a serious game.”