Lennon expects Bhoys to be as brave as lions
Neil Lennon has savoured watching career milestones speed by in recent months – first title, first consecutive European wins on the road, first Champions League victory, plus the remarkable triumph over Barcelona – and tonight he can put another two behind him if Celtic prevail against Benfica in the Estadio da Luz.
A win would see the Parkhead side into the knockout stage of the Champions League at the first time of asking under Lennon – and it would also give him a century of victories as a manager since he took over from Tony Mowbray in March 2010. Not that he was aware of the significance of the occasion until it was raised yesterday.
"It would be my 100th win?" he asked in surprise. "Well, it wouldn't get any better if we could win and go through. Listen, I don't want to say too much because I don't want to get ahead of myself.
"I say that because this game is so hard, I really do, but if we win it it'll be the best thing I've done in my career."
Certainly, a win – or even a score draw, providing Barca do not lose to Spartak in Moscow – would suffice to see Celtic through, but several awkward obstacles are in view.
One is that Benfica have to treat this as a must-win game and they know that any victory would put them level on points but ahead of Celtic in the Group G because they would have the better of the two games played between the sides. Another is that Spartak cannot be written off at home, given that they scored two goals in the Nou Camp and that Celtic have subsequently demonstrated that even exalted Barcelona can be laid low.
Benfica manager Jorge Jesus warned his visitors to expect a display of Portuguese passion at the Stadium of Light to match anything at Parkhead.
"There is a great atmosphere at Celtic Park, it is an example to all clubs," he said. "Celtic fans sing 'You'll Never Walk Alone' and tomorrow Benfica won't walk alone, we will have our supporters helping us."
Jesus did, however, admit Celtic's remarkable win over Barcelona had messed up the script of their group.
"It is true that Celtic have been a surprise, especially in the win against Barca, it messed the numbers a bit," he said. "But Celtic is a team with a lot of value. They will probably not defend as deeply as they did against Barcelona, but they will be defensive and explore opportunities from free-kicks and corners, that's where they can surprise us."
There is the record of contests between these sides – six in total – which has seen the away results exactly reverse the home results. Were the sequence to be extended tonight, we would have a repeat of the goalless draw in Glasgow on the first match day. Frankly, Lennon would take such an outcome now because it would keep Benfica at bay prior to their final fixture away to Barca and leave Celtic needing only to draw at home to Spartak.
That said, Lennon has no intention of chasing a split-decision. "I'm not coming here for a draw because I don't think you can set up to play for that," he said. "That doesn't mean we're going to be gung-ho – we will try and play our way into the game by being as patient as we have been in the previous games. We have come a long way since the first game against Benfica.
"The win in Moscow was huge and with the two performances against Barcelona, we have just grown but the landscape can all change again in one game. But we have shown we are fearless and we don't go under when we are under pressure."
Georgios Samaras will again be a crucial figure for Celtic and he is likely to be accompanied by Gary Hooper. The striker has been doubtful because of injury but should be available, likewise Joe Ledley, but Scott Brown remains an improbable starter. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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