Lennon’s Euro stars bring credibility back to Celtic
THERE is no doubt that Celtic’s reputation in Europe had taken a bit of a battering but Neil Lennon has certainly restored the club’s credibility on that particular front.
The progression through the Europa League group stages is something to savour. Okay, it’s not the Champions League but I think the tournament is getting the credit it deserves again.
Celtic, meanwhile, deserve plenty of credit for topping the group – the first time they have achieved such a feat – and they won’t have any apprehensions about who they draw in the knock-out phases.
There is no doubt that some of the heavy reversals Celtic suffered in the Champions League were slightly embarrassing. You took those hefty defeats on the chin because of the financial rewards and the prestige that playing in that lucrative echelon brought.
But for the sake of the club and its wider reputation in Europe, fortunes needed to improve. Losing 7-0 to Barcelona or 7-1 to PSG, for instance, were very hard defeats to stomach for everybody concerned.
Neil deserves a lot of praise for the way he has approached the European campaign and brought about an upturn in results and performances.
Celtic’s form on the road in particular, an area that was something of an Achilles Heal in recent years, has improved greatly and some of the results away from home really have been first class. This run has really re-energised Celtic on the European front.
The performance on Thursday night against Rennes was very encouraging and the fact they could afford to make a few changes, having already qualified for the last 32, made it a very comfortable evening.
Even though Celtic made one or two alterations, it didn’t seem to affect the overall display and the dynamic. It was a good night all round.
In the European battlegrounds, concentration levels need to be at a premium and Neil has instilled that in the players.
The players also have to brave when they have the ball and they have to make it difficult for the opposition to get through them when they don’t don’t have possession.
Those qualities have shown through in the group stages and Celtic continue to reap the rewards of that disciplined and determined approach.
Can Celtic now go on to emulate the class of 2003 and reach another European final? I certainly wouldn’t like to say at this early stage.
We don’t want to get too carried away, after all. This is a different era and, of course, the Celtic team of 2003 had a very special talent in the shape of Henrik Larsson.
Saying that, the current side is very well balanced, the results have, quite rightly, led to a lot of praise and they will be looking forward to the knock-out phase.
Once you’re in that draw for head-to-head combat anything can happen and there’s no reason why those of a Celtic persuasion can’t dream about making further strides in the competition.
There’s a winning mentality and a momentum building and teams will be a bit more wary of coming to Celtic Park.
As group winners, Celtic will hopefully get a more favourable draw and avoid some of the bigger names who drop down from the Champions League.
But whoever they meet, Celtic will approach it with confidence and purpose. They have set down a marker with the displays in the group stages and now they have the opportunity to build on that and make real statement of intent.
The Europa League may be seen as the poor relation in comparison to the money-spinning Champions League but winning home and away at any level of European
competition augurs well.
The fact the winner of the Europa League gets a Champions League spot is a huge, added incentive and it has given the competition more lustre.
There may have been a sense that some teams were not approaching it in the same manner as they would with the Champions League but I believe the Europa League is getting the respect it deserves.
Celtic are getting that respect back too.