Celtic midfielder Wanyama wants more than Messi's shirt
When Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama signed for Celtic last season from Belgian side Beerschot and decided to become the first player to commemorate the year the Lisbon Lions lifted the European Cup by wearing No 67 on his back, it was a gamble. Fail to perform and never would the phrase "letting the shirt down" have been more apt.
What followed was such an impressive first campaign that there was a firm £8.5m bid from Queen's Park Rangers in the summer and bigger clubs have continued to monitor his progress this season.
Tonight the wide open spaces of the Nou Camp await; with the shadows of the world's greatest midfielders ready to be chased. Wanyama at least has a manager and mentor who has been there, done that and come out as a winner.
Neil Lennon was part of the Celtic team in 2004 that beat Barcelona 1-0 with an Alan Thompson goal at Celtic Park on the way to knocking them out of the Uefa Cup.
Speaking of Lennon, who admitted last night that Barcelona have "gone to another level since that meeting eight years ago", Wanyama said: "He is the perfect coach for me. He played in my position and I have learned so much from him in terms of my positioning on the pitch and the runs I have to make. I know my responsibilities but I am encouraged to attack the space in front of me if it opens up as well."
That was the case against Spartak Moscow earlier this month when Celtic ended a run of 21 away games in Europe without a win. Wanyama's surging run from deep helped open up the home side's defence for Gary Hooper to score the first goal in the 3-2 win. He got two more at the weekend in Celtic's 5-0 victory at St Mirren, making him the club's top scorer in the Scottish Premier League with four league goals – not many defensive midfielders can make that claim.
Will he be limited to tracking Lionel Messi tonight? "It's not a case of man-marking one player; they have so many great players. If selected I will have to look after whoever comes into my space and we have to try to get forward too."
It has all happened very quickly for the brother of Internazionale's McDonald Wanyama. The pair are Kenya's first Champions League representatives and the homeland will be watching tonight's game. "The match will kick off at 9.45pm local time so all the bars and cafés will be full – everybody has been looking forward to these two ties ever since the draw was made," he said. "Benfica at home has probably been the biggest of my career until now, but this will top that."
It also represents another chance for those watching Premier League clubs to see how Wanyama copes on the big stage. There is still some distance between player and club as Celtic look to tie him down beyond the end of next season.
Premier League scouts will also have watched Hooper impress against Spartak by scoring Celtic's first goal, making the second and playing a part in the third. Wanyama agrees it is surprising that England – with the current dearth of strikers gaining regular Champions League experience – have not taken too much interest.
"It is," said Wanyama. "I am sure he would fit well into the current England set-up. But he knows if he keeps playing the way he has been then it will only be a matter of time."
Teams visiting the Nou Camp are often accused of being overly awestruck by their surroundings, not to mention their rivals, taking stadium tours before the game and looking for shirt swaps as early as half-time. Wanyama echoed his manager's sentiment, expressed yesterday, that Cetic were "not here as tourists".
The Celtic midfielder added: "We are here for football reasons and there is nothing else on our minds. Celtic is one of the biggest clubs in the world with a history in this competition and we have a responsibility to do justice to that."
And of jersey swaps at the end of the game, the man wearing No 67 added: "I haven't even thought about whose shirt I might want. If I end up with Messi's, then fine – but getting the ball off him during the game will be far more important."