Celtic v AC Milan: Lennon wary of ‘wounded’ Milan
“That’s hopefully something I’ll manage to avoid any time in the future,” said Neil Lennon with a smile as he assessed the turmoil surrounding the AC Milan side who stand in the way of Celtic’s quest to maintain their hopes of a place in the last 16 of the Champions League.
Milan’s problems, culminating in their exit from the San Siro being blocked by a group of angry fans on Saturday night after a 1-1 draw with Genoa which left them languishing in 13th place in Serie A, have prompted optimism in many quarters over Celtic’s prospects of achieving the victory they need to stay in contention for qualification from Group H.
Lennon, who described Milan as a “wounded animal”, is understandably wary of how Massimiliano Allegri’s team will react to their current crisis. The Celtic manager retains the highest respect for opponents he believes are capable of rediscovering their optimum form when it matters most.
“The Champions League is important for Milan in a lot of ways,” observed Lennon. “I just feel that with the players they have and the mentality of the club, then if they can prevail in the group stages, their form will pick up automatically.
“We have our own agenda. We know what’s at stake for ourselves and I can’t worry too much about Milan’s problems. We had them in the past ourselves and it’s not a nice place to be.
“I watched Milan’s game on Saturday and they had so many chances and a lot of possession as well. It wasn’t as if they played badly or struggled to create chances. They created quite a lot but at this minute maybe the run of the ball is not going for them and I hope that doesn’t change on Tuesday night.
“They have got a high calibre of player and they like these nights. They like the Champions League and they have got the pedigree. The whole structure of the club is geared towards the Champions League. It might not be a vintage AC Milan team but it’s still an excellent side.
“But I haven’t felt a lot of pressure going into this game. In fact, I haven’t felt a lot of pressure in any of the group games really. Qualifying was where the pressure was for us. We have now competed well in a difficult group and still have an opportunity to qualify.
“I would like us to play really strongly at home and give the supporters something to really shout about. Whether that’s enough on the night remains to be seen. I will be looking more to the performance than the result. If we win the game and don’t play well I will still be obviously delighted. But I am looking for a really strong performance as well.”
Lennon requires considerable improvement on Celtic’s last Champions League display, the insipid effort in losing 1-0 to Ajax in Amsterdam three weeks ago which dropped them to the bottom of Group H.
“I don’t think the players owe me a performance,” added Lennon. “But I think some of them owe it to themselves because they have been so good in the rest of the Champions League games.
“They have played well above expectation levels thrown at them the last couple of years. Sometimes you take it for granted and expect them to play like that every game. But I think the first half in Amsterdam brought a realism again to where we really are. We need to find that high level we have been showing in previous games.”
Celtic produced arguably their best football of the campaign so far on matchday one, only to lose 2-0 to Milan in the San Siro. “Unquestionably it was one of our best away performances,” said Lennon. “One of the best I have been involved in either player-wise or as a manager. But we ended up losing the game.
“So, while we can take a lot of things from it, we still didn’t get the result we were looking for. If we can get the same type of performance and a result this time then I will be thrilled. It’s all about winning tomorrow.
“I would like us to set the tempo and take the game to them. Whether we can do that or not will be key to the game. I want us to play with a bit of zest. I don’t think Milan pass the ball as well as Ajax or Barcelona, so we’ll have more possession and it’s what we do with it.
“If we win, it will flip the whole thing around again. It could put us in second place in the group if Ajax don’t win against Barcelona. But aside all of that and looking ahead I am just solely looking at this game for a real performance.
“These games sort of concentrate the senses more. The players get a real feel for it and you can see their natural instincts come to the fore.
“There was a mood about them in training today and I am hoping that gives them a big lift on Tuesday night.
“Losing will obviously kill it for us in the Champions League and we don’t want this to be our last hurrah in Europe at Celtic Park this season “Winning will give us an opportunity of more Champions League football and certainly a realistic chance of at least the Europa League. That would be respectable for us coming out of a group like this.”