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Personal goals are still within sight

CELTIC have a million different reasons to derive motivation for their midweek visit to Camp Nou.


Even if you disregard the small matter of the million euros which Uefa will deposit in their bank account for a group stage victory, every member of the Parkhead side has his own personal goals to attain, his own private reasons to regard their closing Group H encounter as more than just a dead rubber.

For Neil Lennon, part of it quite simply is the fact that he may never take charge of a team there again. Celtic's entry into the group stages is hardly a given these days, while the manager's own personal ambitions will surely take him elsewhere sooner or later.

But so far so good: on Lennon's previous managerial visit to Barcelona, it took a Jordi Alba goal just seconds before the end to deprive him of a famous point. On the other hand, he knows a humbling defeat on Wednesday night would remove at least a little of the lustre of that famous 2-1 victory against the same opponents at Celtic Park last season, and another near miss in the East End of Glasgow this season.

"I might never get the chance to do it again," said the Northern Irishman, apparently subject to interest from Championship outfit Wigan Athletic last week. "I want to look back on my career and think 'look, I coached twice at the Nou Camp'. Or coached four times in total against Barcelona. It is not something where I just want to turn up to have a good time, go down to the Ramblas and take a look round the cathedral.

"I want to enjoy the occasion, and probably with a little bit less pressure on us, we can maybe be a little bit more adventurous in the way we line up. But if I said to you 'right, we're going to go out and go for it' because we've got nothing to play for, then that would make it a danger. We have played very, very well against them over the three games, I am just hoping we can continue that and it doesn't just fade away in the last game."

It will require a gargantuan team effort if Celtic are to get anywhere in midweek, but that doesn't mean personal targets are irrelevant. For Anthony Stokes, for instance, the match represents his last chance for a while to get that elusive first goal in the Champions League group stages, as well as his first opportunity to play at the Camp Nou. Having also been omitted from the line-up in the crucial defeat against AC Milan on the previous match day, he could be in a position to profit if Lennon does indeed opt for a less cautious attacking line-up.

Goals in the rarefied environment of the Champions League don't come around very often, with Celtic's only two this season coming courtesy of a James Forrest penalty and a deflected Beram Kayal shot in the same match against Ajax. To be fair to Stokes - in the midst of a nine-game scoring drought in all competitions - the European campaign hasn't presented him with too many gilt-edged openings.

"I haven't really had much but, you know, you've got to try to take those half-chances," said Stokes. "You don't get two or three clear-cut chances like you do in the SPL, so you just have to be clinical, and we haven't been this year.

"This is my first campaign and I've enjoyed it. I think come the end of it I will be a better player for the experience but, of course, as a striker you want to be scoring in every game but especially in the big games in the important competitions."

Remaining sharp for those few occasions is made all the more trying given Barcelona's tendency to keep the ball from their opponents for long periods.

"If you switch off for one second or get two or three yards out of position they cut you open," said Stokes. "That's the type of quality you are playing against."

Having said all that, Barcelona have become a different side, with different impulses and emphasis, under new Argentine coach Tata Martino. For starters, ahead of Friday's 4-1 Copa del Rey win over third-tier outfit Cartagena, they had lost their previous two matches, against first Ajax then Athletic Bilbao. The coach's countryman Lionel Messi is still injured, as were Victor Valdes and Dani Alves. But more than that, Lennon regards them as a more studied, methodical outfit than in their heyday under Pep Guardiola and has been watching re-runs of that meeting against the Basque side for a refresher course on how to frustrate them.

"We're a couple of years down the line and teams change, personnel changes even if the philosophy stays the same," said the Northern Irishman. "They're still winning - although they've lost the last two, which can happen in a season. A few of the old guard are ageing a bit so they'll have to evolve and I'm sure they will. I don't think they're as free flowing as they were under Guardiola but that was probably the best club team we've seen in a long, long time. He [Martino] may make changes since they've already qualified but they may need a point to make sure they finish top of the group."

The centrality of Neymar is another factor, and his renewal of acquaintances with Scott Brown, free after a three-match suspension for a kick at the grounded Brazilian, should provide some additional box office.

"For all his histrionics, he [Neymar] is a hell of a player," said Lennon. "I thought at Celtic Park he was outstanding. You get a wee bit frustrated watching it, but it's down to immaturity more than anything else. He will learn, he'll mature, and I think that side of his game will disappear as he gets older. There'll be a point where the penny drops with him and he realises 'I don't need to do this'. If not, I'm sure someone will tell him further down the line.

"But there is no question that Browny will definitely make us better. In the San Siro I thought he was outstanding and we have really missed him. He will be champing at the bit to play and he will play. [James] Forrest and [Adam] Matthews will be available as well, so we should have an injection of pace into the team and you clearly need that against a team like Barcelona."

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