Friday 19 January 2018

Moscow heroics give Lennon's Bhoys 'free pass' to enjoy Barca experience -- Bonner

Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

PACKIE Bonner says Celtic have given themselves a free pass to enjoy a battle of wits against Barcelona in the Nou Camp tonight.

The timing of the match, with the Celts buoyed by beating Spartak Moscow -- the club's first away win in the Champions League proper since 1986 -- makes this a luxury fixture for Neil Lennon and his players.

Now it's fingers crossed that Celtic can avoid a thrashing against a superstar line-up that includes Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, and emerge with their pride intact.

ESPN ambassador Bonner, the legendary Jock Stein's last signing, spent 20 years with Celtic and is still revered by their fans.

He will tune in tonight far more relaxed than he would have been if this was a crunch qualifying tie, and he has no concerns that it's a huge step up in class from playing St Mirren on Saturday to Barcelona on a Tuesday.

"If Celtic get something out of this, it would be a huge bonus. There's no pressure. If they don't win, people don't expect that anyway," he said.

"If Celtic get anything out of it, brilliant. If they stop Messi from scoring it will be another great bonus. So it's a great opportunity for them.

"If they had to win the match to qualify then it's a different kettle of fish, but they don't have to do that.

"That Spartak result was a major result for them. It's taken the pressure off.

"Celtic now have a real chance of getting to the last 16, which would be a great achievement for Neil Lennon. This match is about going out there and having a bit of fun".

Bonner pitted his wits against some of the best strikers in the game during his career, including Gary Lineker, Marco van Basten, and Toto Schillaci, but for all-round quality, he has no doubts that Messi is the best player he has ever seen.

"Messi is at the top, no question. Why? Because you can't stop him. He's got everything. It's not just his goalscoring record, or just his ability to beat players and get a cross in early, but he also defends," he said.

"Within that system, the way Barcelona play, they counter the counter-attack. Teams try to play on the counter-attack against them, but Barcelona counter it straight away.

"Messi's a part of that. He'll go and close people down and do that job as well. So he's up there above anybody that I've seen, including Pele and Maradona."

A Celt through and through, the Donegal man misses the big derby games against Rangers, who now ply their trade in the third division of the Scottish League.

The longer Rangers stay out of the top flight, the bigger the financial impact on the Scottish Premier League, so that puts a premium on Celtic's European adventures.

"In one way not having Rangers has taken the pressure off Celtic. They don't have to go out and win absolutely every game, so there's a psychological aspect there," said Bonner. "The other way to look at it is that without Rangers, will Celtic stay sharp for European competition?

"The result against Spartak proves that's okay for the moment.

"From a financial point of view for the club, right now it's fine because they've made money from the Champions League.

"It's next year and the year after that there could be problems, so from that point of view, the quicker Ranger are back in the Premier League, the better."

Irish Independent

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