Celtic: Lennon targets Champions League last eight

Manager Neil Lennon jumps for joy after Celtic's fifth goal in Wednesday's title-clinching 5-1 defeat of Partick Thistle. Picture: SNS
Manager Neil Lennon jumps for joy after Celtic's fifth goal in Wednesday's title-clinching 5-1 defeat of Partick Thistle. Picture: SNS
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NEIL Lennon can speak with authority when drawing parallels between his newly-crowned three-in-a-row champions and the team responsible for the most celebrated dominant spell his club has known in recent times. Follow the Irishman’s logic and a case can be made for these current days being the best of times for Celtic.

Celtic’s remaining target in this campaign is equalling the 103 points record set in the 2001-02 season.

That was a period when the Irishman was patrolling the midfield of a team fashioned by Martin O’Neill with a clutch of signings bought for around £6 million, and spearheaded by the incomparable Henrik Larsson.

This title win has been deemed largely an irrelevance because there has been no Rangers challenge, yet it tends to be forgotten that was sometimes the case even when there was a team playing out of Ibrox in the top flight. So it was 12 years 
ago, with the winning margin a thumping 18 points.

O’Neill’s side would be expected to run over the top of the more modest creation for which Lennon has been responsible but the current manager suggests the contest might not be quite so one-sided if he were able to stockpile players as his mentor did across the first four years of the millennium.

“The team I played in would be stronger,” Lennon says when asked for the victors in a straight contest. “[Yet] the team we had last year, with [Gary] Hooper , [Victor] Wanyama and [Kelvin] Wilson, with maybe [Virgil] Van Dijk and [Stefan] Johansen added, would give the Seville team a real run for their money. [They might be the benchmark] but Martin spent good money at a time when the club needed to spend money. It was a terrific team, exceptional actually – probably the best since the Lions.”

That is the rub for Lennon. Now Celtic don’t have to spend good money. Indeed, to stay true to their successful strategy, they must avoid spending good money and never miss the opportunity to take in good money for any player wanted by another club. Lennon understands the approach, even if at times it leaves him desperately frustrated. But at a meeting this week, wherein he will discuss the club’s latest five-year plan with chief executive Peter Lawwell and largest shareholder Dermot Desmond, it won’t stop him airing his views in blunt fashion – and being responded to in kind.

“In management, people can talk about philosophies and projects but you know my thoughts on that,” he says. “We live in the present, and that is how I will be judged. I don’t have a crystal ball to tell where I’ll be this time next year. But, certainly, for me going into this meeting next week, it’ll be about the close season, the pre-season and the Champions League qualifiers.

“I’ve always had the place to give a straight view and I’ve always done that – and Dermot certainly gives you frank opinions as well. It’s what you want, really. There’s an openness between us which is always healthy. And whether you think the board are pragmatic or not, they are very smart. They know what the environment requires and what the club requires and they will go about that the right way.

“I’ve done the Champions League last 16, so the next step is can we go past the last 16, can we go last eight? And certainly the treble is a viable incentive for them as well. I think there’s a substantial amount to go for. You’ve always got challenges and always have to present challenges for yourself. My worry, at the back of my mind, is if we just have domestic football next year – will I improve myself? That’s just my concern. It’s not about the club’s concern. And my priority is always taking the club forward.”

Lennon likes the look of what his team has produced in the second half of the season and would be comfortable taking the current squad into the qualifiers. Not so the group stages, should the three ties against opponents likely to have more meagre resources be negotiated. His disappointment over the team’s disintegration in the latter half of their group campaign this season spelled out the need for squad augmentation. It also renders laughable the notion that Celtic could ever reach the Champions League last eight, which this season has been the preserve of teams with £100 million-plus wage bills.

“It’s just a target,” the Celtic manager says. “How do you top what we’ve done? The last eight. If we got through the group, if you got a good draw – which we’ve never had, because we’ve AC Milan, Barcelona, Juventus and I don’t know if you can get one of those– you just never know where it could take us.” Most realists would say we certainly do… and it’s not where the elite, moneyed clubs end up.