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Joining the bigwigs

NYON is tiny – home to just over 18,000 people, less than seven square kilometres in size – yet at lunchtime on Thursday the Swiss town can make one of its periodic claims to be the centre of the football world.

At Celtic's Lennoxtown training centre,  Neil Lennon and his squad watch the draw for the Champions League group stages  Photograph:  Jeff Holmes/SNS
At Celtic's Lennoxtown training centre, Neil Lennon and his squad watch the draw for the Champions League group stages Photograph: Jeff Holmes/SNS

Every club in Europe would wish to have an invite to what will take place at Uefa's headquarters. Only 16 actually do and Celtic are one of them. The draw for the Champions League round of 16 will take place at 10.30am UK time.

"I am hoping to be there," said manager Neil Lennon. "I might not get the opportunity again. It will be a chance to schmooze with the bigwigs!"

This time the wigs are only medium-size. The proceedings will be conducted by Uefa general secretary Gianni Infantino and director of competitions Giorgio Marchetti, assisted by the "final ambassador" Steve McManaman. Football draws have grown in scale and pomposity over the years but, while Lennon and the rest of the Celtic contingent can enjoy the spectacle, only one aspect of the day will have lasting significance. It all boils down to the moment when they learn who they must face.

As a group runner-up they are unseeded and know they will confront one of seven group winners (they cannot be drawn against Barcelona after facing them in Group G). Their opponents will be Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke 04, Malaga, Manchester United, Juventus or Paris Saint-Germain.

The other disadvantage to being unseeded is that the first leg will be played at home, creating the possibility of extra time and penalties being contested against a hostile background in the away fixture. The staggered first legs will be played on February 12, 13, 19 and 20, with the return games on March 5, 6, 12 and 13.

Malaga are tournament debutants – all the other 15 teams have gone at least this far in the Champions League before – and join Celtic as the only survivors to have been in the competition since the initial qualifying rounds. Between them, Celtic's seven potential opponents have been European champions 10 times.

"If you top your group in the Champions League then you are a quality side," Lennon said. "The majority of them have great pedigree."

One country looms large. There is a 42% chance of Celtic being drawn against one of the German teams. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are third and fourth favourites respectively to win the tournament (behind Barcelona and Real Madrid). "The Bundesliga is a strong league, it's competitive and very high quality," Lennon said. "For me, Bayern Munich are the giants in that league. How they didn't win the Champions League last year I will never know. Their style of football is fantastic. They have been one of the best teams in Europe for the last three or four years now. They are exciting and powerful and can attack from all areas and all angles.

"Borussia Dortmund were really impressive in topping that group with Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax and they have been the top team in Germany for the last two years. I haven't seen a side play as well at The Etihad as Borussia Dortmund did.

"You look at the gates they get across the clubs in Germany and on average it is 40,000-50,000. It is an incredible country, steeped in its football history. Schalke made the semi-finals in 2011. They play expansive, open football like most of the German teams do. Bayern Munich, Dortmund, and Juve: all those teams would be glamour games and I think Malaga are a real dark horse. PSG, again you talk about glamour. I think our fans would love a wee trip to Paris. And then there are Man United of course."

Lennon would not publicly disclose which club he would wish to face, knowing that inevitably it would be used as motivation by them should that draw come to pass. Instead he spoke more generally: "In terms of the glamour it would be Man U wouldn't it? That would be the one. But I really wouldn't want to cross swords with him [Sir Alex Ferguson] just yet. Having watched them last weekend they looked really impressive beating City away. Obviously I would prefer to be away first but the teams who top their groups deserve that advantage."

The last 16 has been the glass ceiling for Scottish clubs in the Champions League's modern format. Neither Rangers in 2005/06 nor Celtic in 2006/07 or 2007/08 were able to survive their two-legged knock-out ties, although on no occasion were they outclassed. Rangers went out to Villarreal on away goals while Celtic lost 1-0 to AC Milan after extra time and then went down 4-2 on aggregate to Barcelona.

Lennon is not seeing this round as the inevitable end of the road for Celtic. He will be as excited and energised on Thursday as he was back on August 30 when his men were thrown in with Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow. These are the occasions which nourish this Celtic manager through weeks of underwhelming domestic fixtures. At times like these the appeal of the club is at its highest for him.

"I am not going anywhere. I am just really growing into the job and again there have been significant factors. Winning the league was significant for me and this European run has been hugely significant because as an Old Firm manager your benchmark is Europe.

"To achieve what we have achieved this year – getting the away results, playing so well away from home and getting a good balance between home and away ties – has made me very excited. The temperament has been good too. Can you only do this job for so long? I think so, but you can never tell. I could quite easily and happily be here for 20 years or I could be here five years. I don't know. I don't have a crystal ball. You don't know what the circumstances are going to be from one season to the next.

"When things weren't going so well last year, I took it as a great challenge to myself and now I have different challenges ahead of me this year. Thankfully most of them are on the pitch.

"You do miss the Old Firm games. I don't miss them from a manager's point of view because of what goes around them, but as a spectacle they are one of the fixtures in world football. Whether I will be here when they come back round, I don't know."

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