This is Celtic’s chance – it might not come again, warns Lennon
Published 05/12/2012 | 05:00
Whatever twists might be in store for Celtic – who will progress to the last 16 of the Champions League if they achieve a better result at home to Spartak Moscow tonight than Benfica manage away to Barcelona – it is unlikely that they will encounter anything as bizarre as the pre-match press conference.
Scott Brown was proceeding through an otherwise humdrum briefing when he was abruptly confronted by a Russian journalist who accused Celtic of committing "crimes against football" when they won in Moscow on October 2 – and then presented the bemused Hoops captain with a copy of Dostoyevsky's ' Crime and Punishment'.
The upshot of the stunt seemed to be that Celtic contributed to the sacking of Unai Emery as coach, although the axe did not fall until November 25, after Spartak were thrashed 5-1 by Dynamo in the Moscow derby.
Be that as it may, Spartak have already been condemned to the Champions League equivalent of Siberia – tonight will be their last taste of European football until next summer at the earliest – and they are recidivists, because this is the fifth successive time they have gone out of the tournament at the group stage.
Celtic, by contrast, have records in their sights. This will be their 150th appearance in the European Cup and a win would give them their first ever home and away victories in the Champions League format.
In that case they would also reach the 10-point mark, their highest total in seven group stage appearances and a feat that would also make them the first Scottish club to accumulate as much reward.
Yet, even if Neil Lennon and his players accomplish as much, they could still find themselves demoted to the Europa League if Benfica prevail against what is certain to be weakened opposition – Barca coach Tito Vilanova said that he would include "players from the 'B' team" – because the Portuguese side would then qualify by virtue of their head-to-head record against Celtic.
"That would be a magnificent effort from their point of view. We have to make them win, so the onus is on us to win at home. Of course, Benfica could win. There is always that scenario with the unpredictability of football.
"While that is at the back of my mind, right at the forefront of it is winning our game. It will be difficult, it will be tense. We are playing a team who are coming here with nothing to really play for but their pride.
"They are very dangerous coming forward, but they do concede goals. So it is there for us. I'm not saying we will win it, but if we play as well as we can we have a good chance.
"I'm trying to sort of box it off. I suppose in terms of achievement if we qualify it would be as good as anything I've done.
"It's funny, because it hasn't really had the same sort of build up of a huge game – certainly not the same kind of hype which surrounded the Barcelona game, even though there is more importance on this one.
"It would be the best achievement I've had as a manager. You always want to win the league, but to get through this group with the group of players we have would be tremendous."
Asked how Celtic would approach what is sure to be an edgy evening during which the crowd is guaranteed to relay whatever is happening in Barcelona, Lennon replied: "I think they've got to go for it. This is their moment and they might not get this opportunity again.
"I'm not going to put any extra pressure on them – I just want them to go and play as they can at home on a big European night, aggressively and with a good tempo to the game.
"We have players who can score goals, and have flair players who can rise to the occasion. They are capable of doing it.
"Spartak are a dangerous team. They haven't got the calibre of Barcelona or the structure of Benfica in the way they play, but they do have a lot of flair in their team.
"My players are very focused at the minute. I won't have to say too much to them. I just have to get the balance right of saying the right thing, but I don't think there will be much motivation needed.
"Obviously there is the tactical side of it as well and how we are going to play. I don't know what personnel Spartak are going to use. I watched them against Zenit and it was a typical Spartak performance.
"Going forward they were very good, but they looked a bit vulnerable at the back."
Celtic must do without the suspended Victor Wanyama, but they might get a full 90 minutes from Brown, who has learned that his persistent stomach and hip problem may not require surgery after all.
"The way I am feeling right now, I don't need an operation, but it could be a different story a couple of weeks or six months down the line," said the skipper.
"The doctor is not too worried about it, so that's the main thing."
Celtic's progress – especially their home victory against Barca – thrust Lennon into the spotlight across Europe.
"Particularly in England the Barcelona result turned heads. We've had a lot more interest from down the road and a lot of well-wishers," said the manager.
"People hope we can take the next step and it would be great to have a Scottish club back in there. We've turned heads and made people sit up and take notice of the club again which I good.
"But I want more. I want to win this game and I want to qualify." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Celtic v Spartak Moscow,
Live, RTE 2/Sky Sports 3, 7.45