TWELVE months ago, Celtic were enjoying the rewards for joining Barcelona in qualifying from the Champions League group they shared and contesting the knockout stages of the world's most prestigious club competition.

This week, Neil Lennon had to content himself with a seat in a TV studio in Ireland from where he gave his articulate and informed views on Lionel Messi and Co picking apart Manchester City in their last-16 clash.

The fact Manuel Pellegrini's side mirrored Celtic's performance when they lost 2-0 at home to Barca in the group stage - like City, having had a player sent off at a pivotal moment in the game - brought a wry smile to the face of Lennon.

After all, the squad which Pellegrini has at his disposal cost around £600million to assemble: Celtic's significantly less than a fifth of that.

It is unlikely that, in their second-leg tie, City will suffer the same kind of hammering which awaited the Hoops when they played at the Nou Camp in December to close out their group stage fixtures.

But, out is out, no matter the margin.

It gives serious food for thought to those who insist that throwing a few more millions at team-building would lift Celtic to the next level in Europe.

Sure, it would give them a better chance of being more competitive. But the gulf between where they are and where they would require to be to challenge for the big prizes would require the backing of an oligarch or a sheikh - perhaps both - to bridge, as Lennon acknowledges.

"Three out of the four games we've played against Barcelona in the last two years, we have done very, very well," said Lennon.

"The problem is that people then take it for granted.

"Then you see what they do to the best team in England currently, and I think it speaks volumes for the way our players played against them.

"It puts everything into perspective, I suppose."

If he was handed a war chest of £600m to build a side, as City bosses have between them over the past six years, Lennon is in no doubt what Celtic could do; "Win the World Cup," he laughed, adding quickly: "Or buy the World Cup.

"We could win the Super Bowl, the lot."

In all seriousness, Lennon does believe that, with such backing, the Hoops would be contenders.

And he reckons it is inevitable Manchester City will get there because of the funding which they have behind them.

"We could certainly compete," Lennon insisted, if they were ever fortunate to find themselves the recipients of the kind of mega-money available to some other clubs.

"It makes your job a lot easier if you have £100m to spend. You can buy the players you want.

"But you can't get everything you want, and I'm happy and proud about the way we've played in the last two campaigns.

"And it just gives you food for thought for next year."

The harsh economic facts of life concerning the haves and have nots in Europe also applies to the domestic game, never better illustrated than today when, fresh from announcing a £23m profit for the first half of the season, Celtic take on a Hearts side scrambling for their very survival.

Despite a history of verbal and physical assaults on him while going about his job at Tynecastle, Lennon has a soft spot for the Jambos.

He believes relegation for Hearts would be a loss to the top division.

Lennon has the utmost admiration for the job manager Gary Locke is doing, and every sympathy for the predicament he has found himself in since accepting his first managerial position.

"Gary has had it really tough this season," he said. "We all think we are in tough jobs, but Gary has had the hardest job of any of us. He loves the club, and his enthusiasm for the job is unrelenting.

"Gary has done very well to keep his dignity in trying times, and he is attempting to get the best out of young players.

"He probably knew what he was going into, and I'm sure there are a lot of things he enjoys about the job."

One day Locke certainly did not enjoy was back in December when Celtic crushed Hearts 7-0 in the Scottish Cup.

Lennon admits: "Any time you give a team a hammering, you have certain sympathies for the guy in the other dugout."

He hopes the changes in ownership which appear to be slowly unravelling at Hearts will allow Locke to manage in better circumstances.

"I think he has earned it," said the Hoops boss. "I'd like to think they will give him that opportunity next season."

However, this goodwill will not preclude Lennon from trying to hammer another nail into Hearts' SPFL coffin today.

The matter of the clean sheet record - another 31 minutes without Fraser Forster conceding will see him surpass Bobby Clark's 1155-minute mark from 1971 - and stretching their unbeaten run in the defence of the league title are huge incentives which Celtic carry into the game.

"If we can play anywhere near the standard we set the last time there, we'll be delighted," said Lennon. "The first 45 minutes was the best football I've seen from a team I've managed."

It was one of the happier visits to the old ground for Lennon who, despite his history of unwanted and unwarranted attention, admitted: "I do like it there, I like the dynamic of the stadium and the atmosphere.

"I am pretty sure it will be raucous again this time."

James Forrest and Emilio Izaguirre will miss today's game, and are doubtful for Tuesday's match at Aberdeen. But Charlie Mulgrew returns.

Lennon still plans to allow Forrest to travel with Scotland for their friendly in Warsaw on March 5, if he is fit.

But he is disappointed and surprised Virgil van Dijk has failed to be included in the squad named by Dutch boss, Louis van Gaal, for their friendly.

"I think we all agree he's a quality player," said Lennon. "I certainly think he's good enough to make a 33-man squad. Virgil is one the best centre-halves we've seen up here for a while."