Celtic boss Neil Lennon: I’m due a win against an Italian side

Neil Lennon says experience against Italian sides in Europe as a player and manager has developed him as a coach. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
Neil Lennon says experience against Italian sides in Europe as a player and manager has developed him as a coach. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
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The collective development of a team he believes has the potential to flourish at European level takes precedence over any personal milestone for Neil Lennon tonight.

But Lennon can tick both of those boxes simultaneously if he can secure a first win over Italian opposition as Celtic manager when Lazio arrive in the east end of Glasgow for a mouth-watering Europa League showdown.

During his first spell in charge of the champions, Lennon had a combination of encouraging and chastening results against Serie A clubs.

While he regards draws at home and away to Udinese in the 2011-12 Europa League as significant in his own evolution as a coach, the Northern Irishman suffered four defeats out of four on the more rarefied stage of the Champions League against Juventus and AC Milan in the next two seasons.

“I’m really due a win against an Italian team,” smiled 
Lennon who is very much a Europhile when it comes to football.

Tonight will be his 55th European game as a manager – 46 with Celtic and eight with Hibs so far – and it offers him the chance to claim a notable 
victory which would strengthen his team’s position at the top of Group E.

“European football has been massive for me as a coach,” added Lennon. “The tactical approach, the way the opposition approach the game. It’s not like your normal run of the mill domestic games where you have a familiarity with the opposition.

“You come up against different systems, which can change during the games as well. I don’t get excited very often at 48, but this still excites me!

“When I compare myself as a coach now with how I was for my first European game as manager (a 3-0 defeat to Braga in 2010) it is night and day.

“I have so much more experience of tactics and trends of the game. I have learned about different styles from different countries.

“I loved my games against Italian teams as a player but I’ve been thinking about my record against them as a manager. I felt we should have won that game away to Udinese in 2011 and the game at Celtic Park against them was pretty even. Udinese finished third in Serie A that season and it was a brilliant test for our players. We all got a lot from that.

“I remember the game against Juventus in the last 16 of the Champions League and it was a learning curve as well.”

One frequently cited reason for Scottish teams struggling in Europe is the size of step-up in quality from the domestic game. Celtic’s 6-0 rout of Ross County in the Premiership on Saturday may appear a classic example but Lennon insists his players set standards which will also be sufficient to overcome Lazio.

“I don’t think it will be difficult to adapt,” he said. “If we find the level we found on Saturday, we have a good chance of winning.

“Alright, it was Ross County – and that’s not me being disrespectful – but I think the circumstances, the atmosphere and the prestige of the game against Lazio all take care of themselves in terms of your mindset and motivation. It will lift the players, because we don’t get many opportunities like this. So they should make the most of it.

“If we play like we did on Saturday, Lazio will have to play very well to stop us.

“Honestly, I really do think that. We could easily have had double figures on Saturday. That’s no mean feat.

“If we can match that – and, again, you can’t compare the two different styles and games – we are at home and we feel we can challenge anyone at home.

“Listen, I think going into the game it’s pretty even. People probably see Lazio as firm favourites and I get that. But we can beat anybody at home.”

While Lazio may rotate their squad tonight, with Sunday’s Serie A assignment at Fiorentina probably regarded as more important by the Rome club, Celtic’s weekend trip to face Aberdeen at Pittodrie will not deflect Lennon from the task in hand.

“The league is the priority, there is no question about that,” he added. “But we want to be successful on all fronts and European football is important.

“The players have earned the right and worked hard in the games coming off close season - they’ve played really, really well in Europe so far.

“They have the makings of a very good team at this level and maybe beyond as well. It’s step by step, really.

“We know we have Aberdeen on Sunday and that’s a huge game for us in the context of the league.

“But our first priority at the moment is just to put on a good performance on Thursday night. It’s really important for the club’s reputation. It’s important for the fans and for the players as well.

“While we want to be in the Champions League, the reality is we are not. So we have to make the most of the Europa League.

“It may not be seen as a big competition by some countries but it’s seen by us and others as a huge competition. We are going to treat it 
accordingly.”