Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Celtic manager Neil Lennon hopes for boost as Barcelona star Lionel Messi sits out Parkhead clash

Celtic manager Neil Lennon during a press conference at Celtic Park, Glasgow. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday September 30, 2013. Celtic face Barcelona in their UEFA Champions League match tomorrow night. See PA story SOCCER Celtic. Photo credit should read: Jeff Holmes/PA Wire
Celtic manager Neil Lennon during a press conference at Celtic Park, Glasgow. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday September 30, 2013. Celtic face Barcelona in their UEFA Champions League match tomorrow night. See PA story SOCCER Celtic. Photo credit should read: Jeff Holmes/PA Wire

NeIL Lennon believes the absence of Lionel Messi from tonight's Champions League clash with Barcelona at Parkhead is a boost for Celtic, but insists it is also "tinged with sadness".

The 26-year-old Argentina forward injured his thigh in a 2-0 Primera Division win over Almeria on Saturday and has been ruled out for between two and three weeks.

Hoops boss Lennon, whose side lost their Group H opener 2-0 to AC Milan at San Siro, said: "It is obviously very good news for us because he is the best player in the world.

"However, it is tinged with sadness because it is always fantastic to see the great players play here in Glasgow.

"We are looking forward to the game, we welcome Barcelona with open arms and we are hoping it is going to be another great occasion."

Neymar is likely to take over Messi's superstar mantle for the evening and become the focus of the Barca attack but Lennon does not believe the two players can be compared.

The former Parkhead skipper said: "It is like comparing a dog with a cat. They are two different types, two different players altogether.

"He (Neymar) is wonderfully gifted, quick, predominantly playing on the left-hand side and he has goals in him.

"He is only young and he has a fantastic future but it is far too early to make comparisons to Messi.

"There is only one player currently who could arguably be around the calibre of Messi and that is Cristiano Ronaldo."

Lennon, whose side famously beat the Catalan giants 2-1 at Celtic Park last November on their way to the last 16 of the competition, believes Barca will be instantly recognisable even without their Argentinian superstar.

"Our approach will be the same whether Messi plays or not," said the Northern Irishman.

"Barcelona don't change their system, they don't change their style of play really and 4-3-3 is just what they believe in. It has worked well for them very well over the years.

"It would be fantastic if we could get something out of it like we did last year.

"We didn't really budget for it, as it were, in both the games last year, so if we can get something it will be a huge bonus for us.

"It will be very much at times containment; to limit Barcelona to as few chances as we can and at the same time maximise the opportunities that we get, as we did against them last year.

"But they are not like any other team. Against Milan, we had our fair share of the ball and had our chances.

"But Barcelona, for me, are a class above in the way they pass the ball, the way they create chances and the pace they have in wider areas, and that is not being disrespectful to Milan.

"I think they have been the best club side in the world for possibly the last 10 years although Bayern Munich look to have taken over that mantle."

Aside from missing Messi, the visitors head into the tie likely to be without defenders Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba and Carles Puyol.

However, Lennon shrugged off the assertion that Barcelona will be weaker at the back.

He said: "You say that they have defensive problems with injuries but they keep on keeping clean sheets; against Rayo Vallecano, Real Sociedad and Almeria.

"So, regardless of personnel, they are still defending very well.

"They are unbeaten domestically, they got off to a great start in the group (4-0 win over Ajax). They are a fantastic team.

"They will be one of the favourites to win the trophy. Whether they are better than last year, you won't be able to gauge that until the turn of the year."

Celtic v Barcelona: Key battles

Efe Ambrose v Neymar

Ambrose featured in both meetings with Barca last season and particularly impressed in Celtic's 2-1 win at Parkhead. He may have breathed a sigh of relief when Lionel Messi was ruled out this time, but his absence could pave the way for Neymar to shine following his £50m capture in the summer. The Brazilian will be a major threat.

Scott Brown v Xavi

Brown tends to rise to the big occasions and has plenty of experience in the Celtic engine room on European nights such as this one, but is set to come up against another player with bags of experience. Xavi made his 450th league outing for the Catalan giants at the weekend, highlighting his status as the club's record appearance holder.

Georgios Samaras v Gerard Pique

Samaras has been on fine form for Celtic in front of goal in recent European campaigns, including a goal against Barcelona last term. The visitors head into the tie with a defence weakened by the absence of Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba and Carles Puyol, but Pique, who has been solid and has started all 10 competitive matches so far this term.

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk