Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Stephen Craigan: Neil Lennon will feel pain, but Celtic can go far

BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 23: Manager of Celtic FC Neil Lennon reacts during the UEFA Champions League Group G match between FC Barcelona and Celtic FC at the Camp Nou Stadium on October 23, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain. FC Barcelona won 2-1. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Football can be cruel — and when Jordi Alba scored the winner in the Nou Camp with 40 seconds to go last night that statement couldn’t be truer.

Lenny will feel pain today, but Celts can go farAgony: Celtic players fall to their knees after Jordi Alba’s late winner for BarcelonaFOOTBALL can be cruel — and when Jordi Alba scored the winner in the Nou Camp with 40 seconds to go last night that statement couldn’t be truer.

It looked like Celtic would hold on for a well-earned — and unexpected — Champions League point against arguably the best club side ever, but it wasn’t to be and Barcelona’s incessant pressure eventually broke Celtic’s wonderful spirit.

Not a lot of people gave Celtic a hope going into the match and indeed one bookmaker had them at a massive 45-1 for the win.

They made those odds look embarrassing as they shocked their opponents and took an early lead.

Barcelona dominated possession, like they do in every game, 72 per cent incidentally, but Celtic's resilience and defensive organisation frustrated them continually throughout the match and Neil Lennon will today feel like someone has ripped his heart out.

He will find it hard at the minute to take the positives from the performance, but when he eventually gets time to reflect on the game he will be proud of his players and delighted with the progress his team have made in such a short space of time.

Considering Celtic had to come through two difficult qualifiers against HJK Helsinki and Helsinborgs they have belittled their status as fourth seed in the group.

Neil warned his players in the lead up to the game to forget about chasing the likes of Messi and Xavi for their jerseys and big-game mementos. He declared his players were not in Barcelona to visit the tourist attractions, but where there to work and for long spells they certainly took heed of their gaffers’ demands.

It would have been easy for the Celtic players to stand and admire the brilliance of the Barcelona superstars. Better teams and better individuals have visited the Catalonian capital and left with their reputations in tatters, but not Celtic.

A lot of Neil’s players have shown they belong in the elite competition of European football and they will look forward to the return game at Celtic Park in a fortnight with anticipation as opposed to fear.

There were so many big performers in green and white last night, but Victor Wanyama, for me, was fantastic and such an inspiration to his team-mates for someone so young, he’s only 21.

His tackling, reading of the game and driving runs from midfield was that of someone beyond his years and you can see why Manchester United have been heavily linked with him.

With his number 67 shirt referring to the year of the Lisbon Lions, when the great Celtic side won the European Cup, he epitomised the character, spirit and quality of the side Neil Lennon has built.

At times in the SPL its all seems too easy for him, but in all three of Celtic’s Champions League games so far he has excelled and it’s only a matter of time before they receive an offer for him they can’t refuse.

So where does last night’s result leave Celtic's hopes of progression in Group G?

With two home games against Barcelona and Spartak Moscow to come and Benfica away sandwiched in between qualification is well within their grasp.

There’s no doubt it will still be very difficult, but if their opening three games are anything to go by they must believe they can upset the odds and get that second spot.

What they must do is use last night’s disappointment as a motivation to spur them on and make sure they aren’t in the same position again.

One thing is for sure they are good enough; well they have proved that so far.

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