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Lennon has last laugh after reaching knockout stages

NEIL Lennon vowed to do everything he could to take Celtic even deeper into the Champions League after leading them into the last 16 at Parkhead last night.

Neil Lennon will now focus on securing his stars on new contracts
Neil Lennon will now focus on securing his stars on new contracts

Celtic beat Spartak Moscow 2-1 while Benfica dropped points in a goalless draw at Barcelona, a pair of results which took Lennon's team out of Group G into the December 20 draw for the knockout phase. That made Lennon only the second Celtic manager, after Gordon Strachan, to lead the club out of a Champions League group and he did so with a club record 10 points. Celtic can now draw Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke, Paris Saint-Germain or Malaga, with the first leg in February and the second in March. Celtic are unseeded so play a group winner, with the second leg away from home.

"We're there and we are going to enjoy it," said Lennon. "We want to progress as far as we can. Who knows where that will take you? The spirit is fantastic and we have some quality players. They have put everything into the campaign and they have grown as it has gone on. Some of them have enhanced their reputations no end. I'd like to play Malaga in the next round - it will be nice at that time of the year.

"Seriously, it's going to be really tough against one of the top teams from the other groups. We will assess things for January. What I would like to do is try and get Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama tied down on new contracts. I'm not sure too many players will want to leave in January now, with what we have coming up."

Lennon said qualifying had vindicated the confidence he had shown while others had written off Celtic's prospects. "I said at the start – and people laughed at me – that I wanted to qualify," he said. "This is the premier event and this club has had some rough times in it in the past.

"It's nice to have it on my record. It's only Gordon Strachan who had done it before. But I have a long way to go to emulate him or Martin O'Neill, who was a huge influence on my career as well. Both of them have been great role models for me, I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them, particularly Martin. I spoke to him on Tuesday night and I think he'll be pretty proud of me and delighted for us all.

"We didn't play anywhere near as well as we can in the first half tonight but in the second half we had control of the game and deserved to win it. We just looked a wee bit tentative in the first half so we said to them at half time: 'look lads, you have worked so hard to get here, you have 45 minutes left so go and take it'.

"But it was horrible for me at times. When they put up five minutes of injury time I was up and down, and up and down. I was trying to stay calm but inside my stomach was churning."

He could not watch as Kris Commons took his penalty, turning his back and waiting for the crowd's reaction. "I just waited for the roar to go up. But Kris showed great mental strength to step up there and take it," he said.

Valery Karpin, Spartak Moscow's acting coach, was unhappy that the German referee gave a penalty for Marek Suchy's shove on Georgios Samaras but praised Celtic for qualifying. "I want to congratulate Celtic. They have had an excellent Champions League campaign."

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