Celtic v Benfica preview: Lennon savours euro return

AS Celtic Park was being dressed up in Champions League branding by a squad of Uefa officials yesterday, Neil Lennon’s pre-match media briefing was moved to an unfamiliar location.

The manager sat down with newspaper reporters in the Seville Suite on a first-floor corridor, normally used as corporate matchday accommodation. The walls are adorned with memorabilia from Celtic’s Uefa Cup final appearance in 2003 during an era when the club made a genuine impact in Europe under Martin O’Neill.

“I’ve never actually been in here before,” revealed Lennon, noting with approval the youthful look of the red-haired midfielder in the pre-match team photograph. Those were heady days for Lennon the player and now he has his sights fixed on scaling fresh heights in charge of the club he loves.

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Having guided his team through two Champions League qualifying rounds, a task which he conceded had consumed his every waking thought since the summer, Lennon tonight intends to try to enjoy his maiden outing as manager in the group stage against Benfica at Parhead.

But he is equally keen to ensure that none of his players simply view Celtic’s participation among Europe’s elite for the first time in four years as fulfilment of their ambitions and potential this season.

For Lennon is convinced the SPL champions can make a serious impression in the tournament over the coming weeks and months, which will belie their status as fourth seeds in Group G behind Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow.

“We’re here to compete, we’re not here to be also-rans or make up the numbers,” said Lennon. “We might not get this opportunity for another wee while so we have to make the most of it.

“I want my players to do themselves justice. I want them to show the talent they have, allied to the good mentality they’ve shown over the last few years.

“Our performances in Europe have been good recently and I hope they don’t show Benfica too much respect. I don’t want them to be fazed by it.

“I just want them to play their natural game and, if we do that, we can be a match for anyone. This is a step-up in class, there’s no doubt about that, but this is why we’re here. We want to play against the best.

“You look around this room and it brings back great memories of Seville and the great European nights that team had. We want to create our own memories now and our own legacy for the players here. We want then to be heroes.

“We’ve done very well to get here and now we want to compete and compete well. I don’t want us to be the whipping boys of the group. I don’t actually think we will be. I think we might surprise a few people.”

But, while the bookies have Benfica down as favourites tonight, it would hardly be regarded as a major upset were Celtic to kick-off their bid to reach the last 16 with a home win. Their Champions League group stage record at Celtic Park is exceptional, with 13 wins and just one defeat – against Barcelona eight years ago – in their 18 previous fixtures.

“At home against anyone, Celtic should be respected,” added Lennon. “We’re at home first and getting a win would be a great start to the campaign.”

Lennon must try to achieve it without Georgios Samaras, the injured Greek striker whose influence was a key factor in the qualifying round wins over HJK Helsinki and Helsingborgs and whose absence may necessitate a change from the 4-4-1-1 system favoured in those ties.

With Welsh midfielder Joe Ledley still not fit enough to return, and recent Nigerian signing Efe Ambrose probably considered only ready for a place on the bench, there is little scope for Lennon to change his personnel in the wake of Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at St Johnstone.

The anger he expressed in the immediate aftermath of that fixture had cooled by yesterday and he is ready to hand his team the opportunity to make instant amends on the biggest stage.

“I was in a bit of a mood after Saturday but I don’t want to dwell on that,” he said. “It’s very exciting now that the Champions League is here. The players are feeling it and I’m excited for them. It’s just fantastic for the supporters and the club to enjoy these type of games again.

“I said that any repeat performance of Saturday and I would consider dropping players. To be fair, on reflection, I’ve been pretty pleased with them this season.

“Against St Johnstone we had a bad day. Three or four of them who have played at a very high level didn’t do it and it was a wee bit surprising. I’m expecting that to be a one-off.

“The players need to believe they have the right to be in the Champions League, because they’ve definitely earned it. Where it takes us, who knows? The sign of a good team is how they bounce back from a bad result so we’ll see how they deal with this game after Saturday.

“Losing Samaras is a big blow for us, in terms of the way we like to play in Europe. We are a little bit thin for my liking, but we’ll still be able to put a strong team out, while maybe having to change the system a wee bit. We’ll look at the players we’ve got, see what suits them best while trying to negate Benfica’s threat.”