NEIL Lennon surveyed yesterday’s Champions League last 16 draw, which pitched Celtic against Juventus, and declared that his side are ready to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since the tournament’s change in format.
A two-legged tie against the current Italian champions (at Celtic Park on 12 February, at Juventus Stadium on 6 March) might not normally be expected to generate such optimism. However, the Celtic manager believes that his players recognise that this could well be their only opportunity at this rarefied level and they are determined to make the most of it.
“This is the furthest we have progressed as a club in this format and it is a huge incentive for the players to eclipse that if we can,” said Lennon. “This is their time. They can’t do it after the event. They have enough time to prepare and make the most of it. We know they are going to be two monumentally difficult games. But why not?”
Lennon chose to remain in Scotland yesterday while Celtic’s chief executive Peter Lawwell travelled to Nyon to represent Celtic at the draw. The manager watched on television with his players in the canteen at the club’s training base at Lennoxtown as Celtic’s name was the second to be drawn out of the eight group runners-up. He described seeing Celtic included among the top names in European football as the “most excited” he has felt since becoming manager in 2010.
The pairing with Antonio Conte’s Juventus side, who currently lie seven points clear at the top of Serie A, meant Celtic avoided the likes of Bayern Munich, finalists last season, and Manchester United, who will play Real Madrid in the pick of many mouth-watering ties.
Barcelona, who qualified with Celtic from Group G, will play AC Milan. As a group runner-up, Celtic will host Juventus in the first leg on Tuesday, 12 February and then travel to the Juventus Stadium for the return leg on 6 March. Two seasons ago the Italian side moved out of their old home at Stadio delle Alpi, where Celtic lost a contentious Champions League group clash under Martin O’Neill in 2001. They did gain some revenge in the return match at Parkhead, where they defeated Marcello Lippi’s side 4-3. However, not even this famous win could seal qualification for what was then a second group stage.
Lennon played in both these fixtures and recalled matching Juventus in Italy before Nicola Amoruso won a last-minute penalty with a tumble after a challenge by Joos Valgaeren. O’Neill was sent to the stand for his protestations and according to Lennon, “he had the right to feel aggrieved”.
Lennon believes the experience from these two games, where Celtic were able to score six times against the Italians, offers them hope, as do this season’s performances against Barcelona. He rates the challenge that awaits as being every bit as arduous as those tests against the Spanish champions. Lennon also stressed that this season’s improved away form in Europe – Celtic have won three times – means there is not quite the same pressure on them to accomplish all the hard work at Parkhead in the first leg.
“The first game will of course be pivotal in terms of getting any sort of result, but what I do feel is that we are capable of scoring away from home,” he said. “We have proved that in all the games this season.”
He felt that a scoreless draw at Parkhead could be an outcome that still offers his side the chance to progress. “The way we are playing away from home I don’t see why not,” Lennon said. “But we will need to play better than what we did in Benfica. If we can match what we did in Moscow and the Nou Camp then we should be OK.”
There was, he reported, a buzz about training yesterday. “With the players, there was a real sense of anticipation around the training ground, as you can imagine,” he said. “So they’ve all gone away really looking forward to what should be two of the best nights of their careers.”
Lennon acknowledged that Juventus might be secretly delighted by the draw, which pits them against the Scottish champions rather than the likes of Milan or Arsenal. “I think they will be really respectful of us, but they will fancy it behind closed doors,” he said. “Do we fancy it? Over two games, anything can happen.”
• Celtic midfielder Joe Ledley will miss all four of the club’s fixtures over the festive season with a groin injury. The Wales international will be rested until the SPL resumes after a short winter break, and could return when Celtic host Hearts on
Juventus also reported a key injury yesterday. Defender Giorgio Chiellini underwent a scan on a calf injury and while an exact date for his return is unknown, he could be facing up to three months on the sidelines.