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I wouldn't fancy playing against Barcelona, says Celtic boss Neil Lennon

By Martin Hardy

"Would I have fancied playing in Spain?" Neil Lennon felt the need to repeat the question he was asked yesterday, on the 125th anniversary of the formation of Celtic Football Club, and on the eve of the visit of Barcelona to Celtic Park, two weeks after his side had come within touching distance of a point few had thought remotely possible at the Nou Camp.

"Against this lot?" he said, again coming back with a question.

Finally came an answer, once more with a question. "Are you kidding me?"

There were laughs, but Lennon has learned much from that game, as have his players – that despite the self-deprecating humour, they can actually compete.

Much has since been made of Celtic's lack of possession in the Catalan capital during their 2-1 defeat, but significantly that was not a discussion topic for Tito Vilanova. The Barcelona coach instead chose to focus on Celtic's counter-attacks, set-pieces and spirit. Those will be what Lennon will turn to again – that, and what will be a ferocious atmosphere.

The Celtic manager's assessment never altered. The options open to him (and indeed any manager) when facing Barcelona are perhaps as narrow as they can possibly be. Paco Jemez, the coach of Rayo Vallecano, called Celtic's approach "shameful": he kept faith with his expansive game against Barcelona in La Liga on Sunday and Vallecano lost 5-0.

"You would need to ask him, 'What way did we play?'" said Lennon, on the only occasion yesterday that he seemed riled. "They lost 5-0 at home, so what's it going to be like when they go to the Nou Camp? Are they going to play as open as they played at home? Because it could be 10 then.

"I don't need to vindicate myself there. The team did that for me. I didn't design to go out and play backs-to-the-wall football. That's just the way Barcelona make you play.

"People dismiss the fact that we did score three goals in Moscow. So, if we are defensive away from home, then why didn't Moscow pin us back for long periods of the game? Simply because Barcelona are a superior team to Moscow."

That Gary Hooper is likely to miss out tonight because of a hamstring injury further limits his options, as does the expected absence of James Forrest. Georgios Samaras is expected to play, but he has hardly trained because of an ankle problem. There will be a need, once more, for his men to be stoic, heroic and brave.

"You never know who will be a hero for you," Lennon said. "You hope a night like this will inspire them. There were some monumental performances over there. My goalkeeper, for a start, grew in stature, as did my two full-backs.

"Looking at Samaras I thought he looked really in the mood and took a huge lift from the goal. There is no doubt we have taken a huge amount of encouragement [from the performance], if not the result.

"Nothing prepares you for what you are going to come up against. Barcelona might think, 'We really have to turn it on and put this team in their place.' However, it could be great motivation for us that it's still fresh in the mind and still raw with the players that they put so much into it and got nothing from it, and they could go one better this time. I'd never be blasé against this side.

"We're up against it. I watched them play against Benfica last night. Half an hour into the game they were one up with 70 per cent of the possession. So that's what they do to teams. They pass it so well and have complete trust and faith in one another, the way they take the ball under pressure and just know where the other player is – and that's born out of having quality players.

"We couldn't have picked a better fixture to celebrate the 125th anniversary than Barcelona at home in the Champions League. It couldn't have worked out any better.

"It's been a good year for the club and we're proud of this special anniversary. I hope the atmosphere and ambience gets over to the players. I said at the start that I wanted to qualify, [and] my ambitions haven't changed."

How to solve a problem like Barcelona? "You have to play at your very best, you have to be fully concentrated with great intensity... and sometimes even that is not enough."

Belfast Telegraph


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