While most Celtic supporters were relieved not to have been drawn in the same Europa League group as Manchester United (the 2017 winners) and Arsenal (last season’s beaten finalists), manager Neil Lennon was disappointed not to be given the opportunity to pit his wits against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Old Trafford and Unai Emery at the Emirates Stadium.
Lennon would have preferred a joust with the English giants from yesterday’s draw but was consoled by being placed alongside top seeds Lazio, Rennes from the third pot and underdogs CFR Cluj, who eliminated Celtic from the Champions League in the qualifiers earlier this month.
For the Irishman and his players it offers the possibility of revenge and progress and he is quietly confident that the Premiership champions can progress to the knock-out stage.
“It’s a cracking draw and I’m delighted with it,” he said. “There’s some glamour in there and a sense of retribution in the air as well. We’ve played Rennes before in this competition and had some positive results. It’s great to be in the group stage and last night’s win was important but so was the manner of it.
“Lazio is a great tie for the punters and I’ve never been to Rome myself so it’ll be a great experience. They’re a cracking side just now – they won the Italian Cup last season and Rennes beat PSG in the French Cup final as well.
“I’d have preferred to draw one of the English clubs, though. When you have an all-British tie it adds a bit of extra spice and energy. There were three of them we could have had [Wolves were also in the draw] but we missed out.
“As for Cluj, sometimes football gives you the opportunity to right some wrongs and, hopefully, we can do that. I think we’ll be fitter, better and stronger by the time we play them but they had two tight games against Slavia Prague so they’re no mugs. We have the players, though, who can put things right.”
When asked whether he believed Celtic can get out of the group, Lennon, pictured, replied: “I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself but I believe we have the makings of a good team and I’m just glad we’re on the European stage in some capacity.
“We have three big ties at Celtic Park and we need to maximise our home form and you could see in Stockholm we now have good experience in away games. We were just hell bent on getting into the Europa League because, psychologically, it opens up the season. You get some great games.”
But he wouldn’t be drawn on whether he felt Rangers joining them in the group phase would help or hinder his rivals’ title challenge this season. “I don’t look into that,” he said. “Whether it affects our season or not, I really can’t say. Whether that [Rangers also having qualified] is an advantage or a bonus for us remains to be seen.”