Hoops are knocking on door of history

ACCORDING to the ancient Mayan calendar, the world will end 16 days from now.

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It will not.

Neither will it be the end of the world if Celtic fail to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League, though, for many among their followers, it might feel that way.

Neil Lennon and his players have already over-achieved in Europe this season, by virtue of qualifying for the Europa League with a Champions League game to spare.

The problem is that, having won in Moscow and beaten Barcelona at Parkhead, expectation level has been lifted off the sanity scale.

It's akin to the feeling which invaded the mass consciousness in 2003 when Celtic headed to the Uefa Cup Final in Seville.

The realists accepted Jose Mourinho's Porto were the clear favourites to lift the trophy, and just being part of the occasion was a laudable achievement for Martin O'Neill's men.

However, when Henrik Larsson put them in a position to win the final, the expectation swung on its axis.

Bobo Balde's red card shifted the odds irreversibly back in favour of the team that 12 months later lifted the European Cup, but the subsequent defeat in extra-time still made it so hard to take for a Hoops support who had been taken to the edge of glory, only to be cruelly yanked back at the last second.

Those who went through that still don't know whether it was a day in the sun to remember with pride, or a moment in history to regret.

What they do know is that they don't want to go through such a gamut of emotions again. So,many are already erecting a defence mechanism to help them cope if Lennon's side do not make it into the draw for the last 16.

The names go into the hat on December 20 – ironically, a day after the Mayan's predicted the world as we currently know it will cease to exist.

The inclusion of Celtic in the draw, where they would be paired with a group winner, would be celebrated not only by the diaspora of Hoops supporters, but by football fans who like to see the underdog have his day.

Unfortunately, the ability to bring this to fruition is now outwith the hands of Lennon and his players, as a consequence of conceding the head-to-head advantage to Benfica when they lost in Lisbon last month.

The news that the Barcelona side Benfica meet tonight in the Nou Camp will be devoid of many top names, including Xavi and Iniesta, will do little to calm the nerves of those who will fill the stands at Parkhead.

But it is the men on the pitch who will have to remain resolute and steadfast. Their task is replicate the kind of committed performance which won them three points in Moscow and again when Barcelona came to Glasgow, and ensure there is no repeat of the lacklustre showing which undermined their qualification dreams in Portugal.

Lennon knows the pain of getting one foot into the last 16, only to have the door slammed in your face.

It happened in Lyon, when a late penalty beat them, and it is a gut-wrenching pain Lennon will not want to endure again, nor want his men to experience.

He will be bold in his choice of final words to them, and ask them to echo this in their performance.

"This is their moment, they just have to go for it," is the mantra he will try to instil in what it must be remembered at this level is a hugely inexperienced group of individuals.

Cancelling out their lack of previous knowledge on which to draw is the fact that, during the past 14 months in the Europa League and now the Champions League, these rookies have blossomed into journeymen who do not look out of their depth in this workplace.

Fraser Forster is among the very best keepers in the 32 teams competing in the group stages, and this has already earned him a call-up to the England squad.

Gary Hooper is right behind him in terms of recognition, and a goal or two from the striker and another shut-out from Forster would earn them even more respect.

Georgios Samaras has shown the way in Europe, with a clutch of goals which explain why Lennon has been so patient and trusting in the enigmatic Greek.

Others, including Efe Ambrose and Kelvin Wilson, have also used the Champions League stage to show why Lennon was so determined to entice them to Parkhead.

Little wonder Lennon speaks of this European exposure bringing forward the possibility of the club eventually being able to sell some of their best players for anywhere between £10m and £20m The worry is that two others who have been key elements of the manager's European plans, Victor Wanyama and James Forrest, will not be available at this crucial stage through suspension and injury respectively.

But with the right approach and the necessary nerve, those who are sent out to face Spartak have enough to get the win which will take the club to 10 points in the Champions League for the first time in their history.

Lennon predicts they have even further to travel, such is the progress he believes he continues to witness. Whatever happens between the Nou Camp and Parkhead, Lennon and his players deserve every plaudit to hand.

As the manager succinctly said: "Getting European football after Christmas was one of our targets. We have done that.

"At the start of the group, I would have taken the situation we find ourselves in now because no one gave us a prayer.Some even said we would not get a point."

Unsurprisingly, those people have now fallen silent. It's now down to Celtic to have the last word, with, hopefully a little prompting from Barcelona and an anxious Parkhead crowd.

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