Lennon in a winning mood ahead of Spartak
It serves as an indicator of Celtic’s development that expectancy appears their biggest danger when Spartak Moscow visit. Europa League football beyond Christmas, which is guaranteed, was regarded as the more reasonable aim for Celtic at the onset of Group G.
Heading into its final match, Neil Lennon’s men know they need to better Benfica’s result at the Camp Nou to progress to the knockout phase of the Champions League.
Victory over Spartak would afford Celtic a 10-point group stage haul for the first time. Yet is the allure of qualification – something clubs with considerably bigger budgets than Celtic have proved unable to achieve – which appeals most to Lennon.
“I think we’ve got to go for it,” said Celtic’s manager. “This is their moment and they might never get this opportunity again. I am not going to put any extra pressure on the players, I just want them to go and play as we can at home on a European night. Aggressively and with a good tempo to the game.
“We have got players who can score goals. We’ve got flair players in the team who can rise to the occasion. So you are hoping that will all encompass itself on the one night. They are capable of doing it.”
Spartak will finish bottom, regardless of what transpires tonight. Celtic are understandably keen to downplay the notion that the Russians are therefore favourable opponents and that an understrength Barcelona will do them a favour against Benfica. Instead, Lennon is focusing on his own personnel.
“No one gave us a chance in this competition at the start,” he said. “I think we have punched highly above our weight – no one gave us a prayer coming into this.
“We have turned a lot of heads and the performances have shown the club are a force to be reckoned with again. We’ve made people sit up and take notice of the club, which is good. But I want more. I want to win this game and I want to qualify.
“Spartak will be looking to come and spoil our evening and get some sort of pride back for their own club. So that in itself is dangerous. But we have more to play for. I think we need it more than Spartak do and sometimes that can take you a long way.”
Lennon has reason to be bullish. Celtic have blossomed in Europe this season, never more so than when they beat Barcelona last month. Their manager, who enjoyed a decorated playing career in green and white, has received the kind of wider acknowledgement which is not always afforded to those in charge of Old Firm clubs.
“In terms of achievement, qualification would be as good as anything I’ve done,” Lennon said. “It’s funny, because it hasn’t really had the sort of buildup of a huge game. Certainly not the same kind of hype which surrounded the Barcelona game, even though there is more importance on this one.
“It would be the best achievement I’ve had as a manager. You always want to win the league, but to get through this group with the group of players we have would be tremendous.”
Celtic must do without Victor Wanyama, one of their key performers, through suspension and are aware of the threat posed by at least one of the visiting party: Aiden McGeady was sold by Celtic to Spartak for €12.3m in 2010. The Republic of Ireland international is struggling with a knee injury but should, at some point, make a first appearance back in Glasgow’s East End.
Spartak are seen as a club in crisis. They are eighth in the Russian league, recently sacked their manager and have conceded 12 goals in their past three outings. “I’m a Celtic fan but we want to put on a show after a disappointing campaign,” McGeady said. “We want to save a bit of face.
“We’ve not covered ourselves in glory in this campaign, the team has been in turmoil in the last couple of months but every game in the Champions League is big.”