“Bring it on,” the relieved Celtic manager mused in a corridor at the Boras Arena in Sweden following the second leg stalemate against Elfsborg from which Celtic progressed to the play-off round of the Champions League, where they will indeed play Shakhter Karagandy of Kazakhstan.
Although the information available on the opposition is limited, Lennon has already acknowledged that his side could have been provided with more testing challenges. Now safely deposited in the Kazakh capital, Astana, Celtic can concentrate on the job in hand – and it is one they could have gladly accepted just a few weeks ago, when qualifying for the group stage seemed to hinge on a number of factors, including the retention of star operators Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama.
However, despite the departure of both players, Celtic now stand on the cusp of the group stage once again. It is testimony to the efforts of those who have remained at Celtic, but then you would have hoped that Lennon’s squad had enough in reserve to get past the likes of Cliftonville and Elfsborg. The former represented what was effectively a bye for Celtic, to the extent that the Parkhead club were happy to switch the legs so that the Northern Irish club could entertain their opponents at home first and while the tie remained “alive”.
Elfsborg, meanwhile, were a far more difficult proposition, particularly given the extra frisson supplied by the ominous presence of Mo Bangura, their own on-loan player, in the opposition ranks. And yet Celtic prevailed. The reward is a trip into the unknown – but then Lennon would take the unknown over Austria Vienna or Legia Warsaw, other possible opponents. The trickle of information that has been made available to Lennon – coach Garry Parker was in attendance on Saturday as Shakhter Karagandy defeated Astana, in the same “away” stadium where they will face Celtic tomorrow night – should not inspire too much trepidation in the manager.
Lennon has already made it clear that the aim is to score at least two goals away from home, which would help make the second leg all but redundant. It would also hand him plenty of time to badger Peter Lawwell, the club’s chief executive, about loosening the purse strings again.
Lawwell has already been criticised for the failure to do so ahead of this play-off tie. However, he is likely to have taken the probably reasonable view that the players already at the club can surely be relied on to take Celtic to the next stage. It is not as if Lennon has been refused the funds to add to the squad. Derk Boerrigter looks to be a more than adequate enhancement to the pool of forward players, and was desperately unlucky to pick up an injury on his debut against Ross County.
Much, too, is expected of 22-year-old defender Virgil van Dijk, who made his debut towards the end of Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Aberdeen. Although he didn’t cost any money in terms of a transfer fee, Steven Mouyokolo also played solidly in the centre of defence at Pittodrie. Amido Balde, meanwhile, scored a winner against Liverpool in a friendly in Dublin and looks to have started to answer early doubts about his quality.
There is enough in this Celtic squad to negotiate a route past the champions of Kazakhstan, in a tie where the first leg is being played in a 30,000 capacity stadium that will be virtually empty tomorrow afternoon. The logistics might be daunting and the journey a strength-sapping, onerous one. But Lennon will savour the prospect of cashing in on the air miles since Celtic have been given every opportunity to progress.
However, he will still deserve all the credit going – just as he will also deserve the comfort of knowing Lawwell will gladly support his efforts in the transfer market, having, for the second successive season, ensured that Celtic can count on a Champions League windfall.
It would represent another feather in Lennon’s cap after a turbulent summer series of friendlies in Germany that seemed to anticipate a far less straightforward start to the campaign than has since transpired.