Neil Lennon: Get us over the line, Bhoys

LAST 16 of the Champions League?

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Neil Lennon will keep his players focused and calm ahead of Spartak clash
Neil Lennon will keep his players focused and calm ahead of Spartak clash

Or Europa League last 32? Whichever path beckons Celtic after tomorrow night, they can stride forward knowing they have already over-achieved in Europe this season.

Some might say they have also over-extended themselves, given the continued inconsistency of their domestic results around the time of Champions League qualifiers and Group G games.

What is not in dispute is that, of the 32 squads currently competing in Europe's elite competition, the Hoops squad has the fifth-lowest valuation – only Nordsjaelland, BATE Borisov, Cluj and Dinamo Zagreb are lower – while Group G opponents Barcelona has a value 11 times that of the Parkhead club.

Celtic entered the competition through the qualifying rounds – winning all four ties against Helsinki and Helsingborg – then had to overcome the handicap of being drawn from Pot 4 as one of the lowest-ranking teams in the Champions League.

So, to describe their performance so far as punching above their weight would be accurate, but would still only tell part of the story.

They have defeated the competition favourites, Barcelona, and recorded their first-ever away win in the group stage. Their victim that historic night, Spartak Moscow, now come to Glasgow seeking some kind of revenge.

But, for Celtic, there is so much more at stake tomorrow night, and Lennon believes they would deserve a place in the last 16.

As he put the finishing touches to their preparations, the Hoops boss – who has already recorded 100 victories in charge of the club he captained when they first broke through to the knockout round of the Champions League in 2006 – said: "If we can get the result we need to get to the last 16, it would top the lot in terms of my wins as manager.

"To take this team, this group of players, with the budget we have used, to the last 16 would probably be my best achievement."

To put it into some kind of perspective, the most expensive purchase in the Celtic side expected to line up against Spartak will be Scott Brown at £4.5m – and he was bought before Lennon took over as manager.

Of the men he has brought to the club, Gary Hooper at £2.4m represents the biggest outlay – and, boosted by his Euro goals, he is now valued at around four times that price.

Lennon is proud of what he has built with a limited budget, and how far he has taken them already, but insisted: "It's not even that. It's just to take them through because I know how difficult that has been to do over the years. Over the five games we have played in the group, they have performed very, very well.

"Now, if we can just get over the line against Moscow, then we will have won away from home, beaten Barcelona, and would have accumulated 10 points, which is no mean feat."

If Celtic can win against Spartak, it would also be the first time in their history they had beaten any side twice in the group stages, and Lennon admitted: "That's something else to think about, and aim for. There are a lot of targets there for us to achieve. Even if we can get to 10 points, it might not be enough, but it will still be very satisfactory."

Satisfying? Perhaps. But surely not fulfilling, given how the wins in Moscow and against Barca set them up for a place in the last 16. Maybe it was to shield him and his players from any flak if they do not make it, but Lennon attempted to keep a sense of perspective.

"We are delighted to be in Europe after Christmas," he said. "But the chances are we can still make the big one, and that is what we are all aiming for."

Their aim will be all the more accurate if they can hold their nerve.

Knowing that they are no longer in control of their destiny because a win for Benfica in the Nou Camp will render any result achieved against Spartak irrelevant will ensure a tense night when as much attention will be paid to what is happening in Barcelona as to what is happening on the Parkhead pitch.

Lennon will use all of his experience of such scenarios to keep his players focused and calm. That work has already begun as Lennon wants to give them the best possible chance to enjoy the achievement of a lifetime.

He said: "They were off on Sunday and the majority of them, the likes of Charlie Mulgrew, Mikael Lustig, Kris Commons, Gary Hooper, Georgios Samaras, Kelvin Wilson and Joe Ledley, all had a rest.

"I'm sure they will feel the benefit of that and will be really focused for tomorrow. They know how big the game is. I don't need to build it up. They know what is at the end of it if they can come through it. I think we are all looking forward to it.

"There will be enough hype around the game without me having to build it up in any way or adding any extra tension towards the situation."

For Lennon himself, it will mark a major staging post in the season. Getting through the qualifiers was the first. Putting the group stage behind them is the next, and he admits he is looking forward to Thursday morning.

Lennon said: "Then I can really get my teeth into the domestic stuff. These European games have been lurking in the background for quite a while.

"It would be great to get over the line and give the players something to really look forward to after the turn of the year. Then we can really concentrate on domestic football."

SO, one final push is what he will demand, and Lennon is delighted he has got some key players back in contention for this defining date in their season.

Emilio Izaguirre has played his way back into the manager's plans after returning from a hamstring injury at the weekend, and Lennon said: "He looks fine. He is training well and has done everything that has been asked of him. Izzy gives us that balance we have been missing a little bit on the left-hand side.

"We will just have to wait and see how Scott Brown is. But James Forrest will not make it until pre-Christmas, I would imagine, and Anthony Stokes is out until mid-January."

The conclusion of the group stage games will offer the opportunity for captain courageous Brown to have the hip surgery he has been delaying.

But Lennon insisted this is not a given and said: "No decision has been made yet. We will sit down and talk to him after tomorrow night."

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