Euro big time is stage for Lenny Lions to roar again

THE name Celtic among the group comprising the last 16 of the Champions League ensures there is a bit of romance still in the highly-commercial world of football.

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Paradise found...Juve's players, including andrea Pirlo, above inset, got used to the Parkhead surface last night
Paradise found...Juve's players, including andrea Pirlo, above inset, got used to the Parkhead surface last night

At the same time, the delivery of the Parkhead club's half-yearly accounts 24 hours before they line up against Juventus is a cold and calculated reminder of how much of a transformer sitting at the big boys' table can be for an operation marooned in the SPL.

The £25million already generated from this season's campaign – which kicked off on August 1 when the first of four potentially-fatal qualifying games had to be negotiated – has done much to boost the Hoops' turnover by more than 30 per cent when compared to the same period last year.

Then the Europa Cup was their battleground. And, although the money generated was welcomed – given that the club had exited Europe altogether by August the season before – it was never going to elevate them to the healthy financial position they now occupy.

However, it is the results on the field which matter to Neil Lennon and to the supporters who will turn up or tune in tonight.

The shrewd investment made in the side is yielding huge returns, with the promise of even more to come, either through further progression in the Champions League or by way of profit from the sale of some of the heroes who have carried the club this far.

The steps the team has taken under Lennon to get to this point in the campaign – a stage beyond mega-rich clubs including Chelsea and Manchester City – are worth examining.

Four wins out of four in the qualifiers. Victory in Moscow – the club's first away win at Group Stage level in 21 attempts.

Beating Barcelona on a night when the world woke up to the fact Celtic were back on the scene.

Holding their nerve against the Russians to qualify for the last 16.

All of these were important stages in the evolution of this group. Now the aim is to become the first Scottish club reach the quarter finals of the competition in this format.

That would be a quantum leap, given Celtic's starting position in qualifying round 3.

A bridge too far? Perhaps. The bookies certainly think so. But defying the odds and punching above their weight provides the extra ingredient in the adrenaline which courses through this group on nights like this.

It does not matter to them that Juve are top of Serie A, loaded with international stars, including Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon, and among the favourites to lift the trophy at Wembley on May 25.

It is not a concern that Juve are unbeaten in the Champions league this season, having topped a group which included holders Chelsea and the highly-respected Shakhtar Donetsk.

Celtic are in the last 16 – and they are in it to compete. It's been the mantra since they played Helsinki in their opening qualifying tie, and Lennon has successfully converted any non-believers in his squad to his strong belief they are good enough to tilt at windmills – and take the wind out of the sails of giants.

The momentum built up during the hectic qualifying rounds and Group Stage has been dissipated due to the gap between those matches and the knockout rounds.

That's unfortunate because Lennon has had to work hard to keep negativity from the Parkhead door in the weeks between the draw and Juve arriving.

It would undoubtedly have been better had the Hoops fired straight into the Last 16 ties rather than have so much time to think about what is now facing them. But the day has finally dawned, and Lennon will tell those selected to start against Juve that they have to seize the moment because there is no guarantee they will stand on the threshold of anything so momentuous again.

That's not being pessimistic, just realistic. By the time the competition kicks off again next season, the champions of the SPL will have to enter at an even earlier qualifying round, increasing the potential to get caught cold and slip up against opposition they would be expected to dismiss with ease when up to full speed.

Will Lennon gamble with the likes of Georgios Samaras and James Forrest, who have been fighting to recover from hamstring injuries?

Will Efe Ambrose convince the manager he is fit and ready to play after returning only today from the Africa Cup of Nations?

Huge decisions befitting a huge occasion. But Lennon appears at ease as he prepares to make these calls.

For these ties, Celtic have changed the name of their shirt sponsor to Tennents' Extra.

Perhaps they should carry the logo 'No Fear', because that is how the manager wants everyone to approach these games.

Finance

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