'Bye, bye Celtic': Neil Lennon has last laugh at those who said Celtic's Champions League ambitions were a joke

Derided as Champions League also-rans, Celtic face Juventus tonight with last eight in view

Click to follow
The Independent Football

The Twitter feed came from ITV, getting on for six months ago. "Bye, bye Celtic," it read. The draw for the Champions League group stage had just been made. Celtic, the champions of Scotland, had been placed in Group G, with Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow. "It was a cheap shot really," Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, said yesterday. "It was born out of ignorance."

He did not need to say much more. On Tuesday night, Celtic face Juventus at Celtic Park in the final 16 of the Champions League, a stage of the competition that has proven beyond Chelsea, the champions of Europe, and Manchester City, the champions of England.

There was no vitriol from Lennon. At the time he had asked for an apology, but the run his side has embarked on has filled the space for any reply. ITV was not alone in the judgment that it was time for another collective joke at the expense of Scottish football.

There is no vociferous resentment from Lennon. He did not round the wagons to create a mentality, but there is a desire for recognition. "We have been underestimated as a sort-of physical, up-and-at-'em British-type team, which is exactly what we're not," he added. "We've got plenty of skilful, technical players, who, on a big pitch, against quality opposition, will perform.

"I certainly think the mainstream [media] down south have been very encouraging towards us in their respect and coverage. We were sort of seen as a novelty, now people see us as a pretty serious club with a pretty serious team, but then the SPL was talked down. Yeah, we are 18 points clear but if you look at Spain and Germany and England now, it looks like there's only going to be one team pushing to win their respective leagues and they're allegedly the three biggest leagues in Europe

"It [the ITV tweet] was just a cheap shot, which we've had to put up with, but I don't need to use that, I don't really need to motivate the players. They know what's at stake, they know what they've done to get here. There is a motivation to go further, there's a realisation it's possible. I think we have caught a lot of people's attention."

It is more than three months since Lennon raced on to the Celtic Park turf to grab his exhausted players after victory over Barcelona. It was a night of European football that will comfortably sit among the greatest the club has enjoyed, yet the victories over Spartak Moscow (for belief) and Helsingborgs (for qualification) should not be forgotten. Reaching the Champions League group stage, as Lennon has asserted, was even more vital because of the demise of Rangers.

Winning away from home was crucial. They were platforms, and the success over Barcelona gave belief. Now he has the attention of Juventus, the leaders of Serie A by five points, who have trained at Rangers' Murray Park ahead of the game.

"What has happened so far tells the players they can do it," Lennon added. "I think winning in Moscow and the manner in which they played was psychologically huge. There have been times when we've been at ease during the games, they've looked like they've been in decent control. They've shown a great deal of maturity.

"It could all go up in smoke against Juventus but that's irrelevant for me. I want them to go out and play as strongly as they can. It will be different from Barcelona. We'll have more of the ball, I'd imagine. It'll be more a case of us trying to break them down rather than the other way around. Juventus will try and counter-attack and suck the life out of the game when they can. We have to show no signs of frustration during that period.

"I don't want people thinking this is going to be an annual thing because it's a very difficult thing to do. We have to maximise our opportunity. We have to say that to the players as much as anyone. We might never get here again. It's been four or five years. It's such a difficult ride to get here we've got to make the most of it now.

"You have to enjoy these moments and you have to enjoy these nights. For everyone in the stadium to enjoy it, the players have to play. Sometimes they're not enjoyable experiences because it's hard work, it's really hard work." It will not be any easier for the presence of Andrea Pirlo. "He's pivotal," said Lennon.

Much will depend on Juventus' reaction to the Celtic Park atmosphere. There were conflicting attitudes from Antonio Conte, the Juventus manager, "60,000 Celtic fans will be a 12th man" and his goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon, "As far as I'm aware a fan has never scored a goal."

There was a reminder, also, of the contrasting status of the two clubs. Lennon will assess whether the central defender Efe Ambrose has recovered from flying back from the African Cup of Nations at lunchtime today. Conte claimed "It would be crazy" to risk Kwadwo Asamoah, who is also returning.

Celtic remain minnows at this level, but that they are no longer judged as such was confirmed by Conte. "If anyone underestimates Celtic, it is certainly not us," he said. "We have looked at their team, they are very good. We have great respect for Celtic. We're playing against a very good team that keeps a good shape. Like ourselves they are back at the top table." Against the expectations of some.

Kick-off Tonight, 7.45pm, Celtic Park

TV ITV Referee A Mallenco (Spain)

Odds: Celtic 18-5 Draw 12-5 Juventus 4-5

*One booking from a ban. Suspended Chiellini (Juv)

Pitch battles: three key confrontations

Kelvin Wilson v Mirko Vucinic

Vucinic will provide an aerial threat and is comfortable holding the ball up or running at defenders. Wilson is in fine form, but might miss the calming influence of Nigeria's Nations Cup winner Efe Ambrose.

Victor Wanyama v Andrea Pirlo

Both are composed on the ball, but whereas Wanyama will overcome Pirlo in the tackle, he may fall short in creativity. Pirlo will look to dictate play, but Wanyama could be his first stumbling block.

Gary Hooper v Andrea Barzagli

The Englishman is a skilled striker, able to bring others into play. But Hooper will have to be strong up against Juventus's most used man this season, who is happy to play the ball as well as being a rock in defence.