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Celtic excited, but far from daunted, by a draw that gives them a fighting chance

NEIL Lennon had the best seat in the room.

Neil Lennon and his players watched the draw at Lennoxtown
Neil Lennon and his players watched the draw at Lennoxtown

His Celtic players fanned out behind him, a little self-consciously given that the Lennoxtown canteen is usually a sanctuary but for once had to be shared with photographers, television cameras and reporters. From Paddy McCourt and Charlie Mulgrew in the front row, to Kris Commons and Kelvin Wilson leaning against the wall, to Fraser Forster in the doorway and Emilio Izaguirre fiddling with his smartphone in the corridor, they had gathered to watch television. It was 5pm, Sky Sports News was about to broadcast the Champions League group draw and the players squeezed in to see it. The almost boyish enthusiasm was infectious. When Sky flashed up the bookies' odds – Celtic 300/1 to win the cup – Lennon gave a good-natured laugh.

If it was unprecedented for the media to be granted access to this intimate moment, the club's first participation in a group stage for four years, the glasnost was hugely refreshing. It also spoke volumes for how the champions feel about themselves right now and nothing happened in the following 40 minutes to dampen their chirpy mood. Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow? There was a collective gasp and an instant eruption of excited chatter. Yeah, daunting. But not the worst. They would take that. Within seconds the players started to file out of the room leaving Lennon, pen and paper in hand, to continue jotting down the entire draw.

Later, Anthony Stokes tweeted: "Barca eh . . . get the oxygen masks out haha!" Maybe he was referring to the chasing Celtic would have to do against their peerless ball retention, or maybe it as about how high Celtic fans would have to climb to reach their seats in Camp Nou. But it also worked in another sense: any meeting with Barcelona, no matter if it is Celtic's fourth in nine years, has the potential to be breathtaking. The Scottish champions famously knocked them out of the 2004 Uefa Cup when Lennon himself played in the decisive 1-0 win in Glasgow. Barcelona won 3-1 at Parkhead and there was a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou when they met in the 2004/05 Champions League group. Three seasons later, Barcelona won 3-2 away and 1-0 at home in another group encounter. In those three visits to Catalonia the aggregate score was only 2-1 to Barca.

Benfica are familiar, too. Each team won 3-0 in their pair of Champions League group games in 2006-07 and both had home 1-0 wins when they were put together in the same competition a year later. Celtic eliminated Spartak Moscow on penalties after two 1-1 draws in the 2007-07 Champions League qualifiers. They would be pretty low key opposition this time were it not for the presence of Aiden McGeady, for whom the Russians paid Celtic £9m in 2010.

It was not this Celtic team – of whom only Georgios Samaras and Scott Brown have played for the club in the Champions League – who pulled off those previous results but the memory of one-off triumphs over all three Group G opponents, even Barcelona, clearly buoyed Lennon. His first reaction? "Tough. All four teams play open football. The three teams are familiar to us, we have recent history with all of them and now there's Aiden McGeady at Spartak; he is in good form. It will be great to see him again. It's brilliant to be in there. It's a very attractive group and we're really looking forward to playing them."

His own winning performance against Barcelona had been "a long time ago", he said. "It will be a tough ask but if any game whets the appetite it's Barcelona. I played in the Camp Nou. I didn't see very much of the ball, to be fair, you very rarely do against Barcelona. You have to be very well organised to get anything there. It's a great football arena, one of the best stadiums in the world. We will be playing against Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi. The names roll off the tongue. Hopefully they just play those three, then we might have a chance . . .

"Benfica have been a pretty impressive team over the years as well, there's a good mentality about Portuguese teams. And Spartak could be anything, they could be a surprise package.

"If we can make the most of our home form, then great. We will have to brush up on our away form, which has been our Achilles heel over the years. Our away form in Europe has been good recently, unbeaten in our last four, but it's going to be a tall order in this group. If we can get a point in either of the away games against Benfica and Spartak Moscow, it would be fantastic. But looking at the group, it's decent. The players were sitting there, all excited about the draw. They will go home tonight, mull it over and talk about it."

Much later, Lennon was irritated by a tweet from itvfootball which reported the group with the dismissive aside "bye bye Celtic". They apologised but not before Lennon had tweeted that he was "not happy with that". It was quite an achievement to ruffle him yesterday. At no point did anyone mention all the money which is about to pour into Celtic from Uefa. Yesterday was only about the football, and Lennon lapped up every minute of it.

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