Celtic's Champions League draw with Juventus is most excited I have been at club, says Neil Lennon
Neil Lennon declared that Thursday’s Champions League draw – which paired Celtic with Juventus in the first knockout stage of the tournament – had excited him more than anything else in his time in charge at Parkhead.
Swede dreams: Henrik Larsson scores for Celtic in their 4-3 victory against Juventus in the Champions League group stage in 2001Photo: GETTY IMAGES
The Hoops manager had originally intended to travel to Nyon for the draw along with the Celtic chief executive, Peter Lawwell, and other club representatives but decided not to travel because the occasion coincided with the seventh birthday of his son, Gallagher.
Instead, Lennon watched the proceedings unfold live on TV along with his squad at their Lennoxtown training base. “This is the most excited I’ve felt since I took over the job – and proud, proud to be associated with the club, Peter and the delegation out there.
“I’m delighted for the board and the supporters. With the players, there was a real sense of anticipation around the training ground this morning, as you can imagine. So they’ve all gone away really looking forward to what should be two of the best nights of their careers.
“I think they will be really respectful of us but they will fancy it behind closed doors. Do we fancy it? Over two games, anything can happen.
"The first game will be pivotal in terms of getting any sort of result but what I do feel is that we are capable of scoring away from home – we have proved that in all the games this season.
“So 0-0 at home, would that be a good result? The way we are playing away from home I don’t see why not, but we will need to play better than what we did against Benfica in Lisbon. If we can match what we did in Moscow and the Nou Camp then we should be OK.”
The return of Juve to the east end of Glasgow on Feb 12 – the return in Turin is on March 6 – will resonate powerfully with Lennon, who played in one of Celtic’s legendary victories, when they beat the Bianconeri 4-3 at Parkhead in a group stage game on Halloween 2001.
In the first game at the Stadio Delle Alpi, Juve won 3-2, the winning goal being scored from a penalty kick won by Nicola Amoruso with a blatant dive in a challenge by Joos Valgaeren.
The incident provoked Martin O’Neill to apoplectic rage in the Celtic technical area, a scene that has never been forgotten by those who witnessed it.
“To be fair, you couldn’t blame him because there was no contact between Joos and Amoruso,” said Lennon.
“Amoruso got the penalty and we all felt incensed, all felt a sense of injustice. We had come back from 2-0 down and Trezeguet had scored two that night. We didn’t play well in the first half but played really well in the second half.
“If a decision like that had gone against me, as a manager, I would have been just incensed.”
Asked if that was as angry as he ever saw O’Neill, Lennon laughed and replied: "No – you obviously haven’t seen him in an office with me at times! It was huge because of the way the game had gone, the team he had set out, the team he had built in a short space of time – and the team we were playing, one of the favourites to win the tournament that year.
“You had Nedved, Davids, Trezeguet, Del Piero, Salas, I think Buffon was playing. It was a team littered with world class stars. We had matched them for 89 or 90 minutes, so he had every right to feel aggrieved.”
The matter rankled so much with Celtic – who were edged out of qualification from the group by Juve – that when Lennon attended a coaching forum addressed by Marcello Lippi, who was in charge of the Italian side in 2001, he brought the matter up once more.
“So I said, “OK, 11 years ago, over in Turin – was it a penalty?' He said, ‘Ah, some decisions you get, some decisions you don’t’,” said Lennon.
Of the current side, Lennon said: “I think this Juventus team are formidable. Always the Italian teams are tough cookies and this team are consistently excellent at the minute.
“They are well clear at the top of Serie A, they won the league comfortably last year, they topped a group with Chelsea and Shakhtar – and beat Chelsea 3-0. There’s not many teams do that.
“So they are a formidable side, they know each other very well, they have a lot of flair with people like Sebastian Giovinco, Andrea Pirlo and others. The majority of that Italian team that got to the final of the Euros was made up of Juventus players.”
Celtic encountered Serie A opposition last year, when they met Udinese in the Europa League and held them to a draw in Italy.
“I think Juventus are stronger than Udinese but at that time Udinese were in second in Serie A and doing quite well,” he said.
“I think it will be a very tactical game, they counter attack very well and have good pace in wide areas and like all Italian teams they will be very well set up defensively.
”Italian football has been through a transitional phase but it’s coming through the other side. There are cycles, and this seems to be Juventus’s time. AC Milan are down a bit, Inter have been inconsistent since winning the Champions League, so Juventus look like top dogs at the moment.”
Meanwhile, the reaction from Juve was as Lennon anticipated. “It could be worse, even if Celtic are a team to respected,” said Pavel Nedved, the former Juventus and Czech midfielder and now a club director.
“They defeated Barcelona in the group stage and fully deserved to qualify. I have played there [at Celtic Park] in the past and can guarantee we will encounter a great atmosphere.
“We will need to be very focused from the start and try to play with their same intensity. In the knockout stages, experience is very important and I hope our players take on Celtic with great determination. Playing the return leg at home is surely a small advantage.”