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Spiers on Sport: Nou Camp proves Celtic’s exciting potential

It may be premature to say it - and time might disprove the notion - but this Celtic team being built under Neil Lennon has the potential to be one of the most exciting at Parkhead in years.

In exalted company: Victor Wanyama takes on Andres Iniesta in the Nou Camp
In exalted company: Victor Wanyama takes on Andres Iniesta in the Nou Camp

In the Nou Camp on Tuesday evening we witnessed again a clutch of Celtic players – Fraser Forster, Emilio Izaguirre, Efe Ambrose, Victor Wanyama, James Forrest and Gary Hooper – who are quite justifiably attracting the attention of scouts from the Barclays Premier League and beyond.

Celtic lost 2-1 to Barcelona in the cruellest fashion, with Jordi Alba scoring the Spanish club’s winner with 15 seconds remaining. That late blow, though, could neither diminish nor hide Celtic’s fascinating potential.

Right now one thing seems clear. Lennon and Celtic have accumulated a group of footballers who, depending on the club’s financial needs over the next two years, could become as strong and skilful as the Martin O’Neill team of a decade ago.

There were times when Celtic couldn’t live with Barcelona in terms of their hosts’ pace and possession on the ball – but that is hardly the point. From a Scottish point of view, Celtic revealed a wealth of talent that is quite a compliment to the club’s scouting policy.

For two seasons now Celtic’s “unknown” signings have been lauded: first Hooper, then Izaguirre, then Beram Kayal, then Wanyama. These are still early days to be making any emphatic judgements about Ambrose, but already this Nigerian international, plucked from the relative obscurity of Israeli football, looks quite a find.

Of all these players, Forster might arguably be the least heralded, but his recent call-up to the England squad, and his two saves from Lionel Messi on Tuesday night, confirmed his growing stature as a goalkeeper. Forster is a symbol of everything Celtic are getting right at the moment.

The Scottish champions have been adept in their buying and selling – or that might more accurately be described as investing and selling. In Barcelona their many young players confirmed again that, come what may, Celtic have prized assets to cash in whenever the moment requires.

Lennon, like all managers, is understandably irked by any talk of his young players being sold. “I don’t want anyone to leave – I am trying to build a new team here,” said the Celtic manager.

Yet Lennon knows what Celtic’s overall strategy is – it is to have players such as Hooper and Wanyama for three years and then make a hefty profit on their sale to richer – though often not bigger - clubs.

It is no slight, no downsizing of ambition, to have such a policy. Indeed, done properly, as Celtic appear to be doing, considerable success on the field can be achieved.

The recruitment model for Celtic was set down years ago by PSV Eindhoven. Unhindered by European Union employment policies as applied by the UK, the Dutch club famously combed the world for young talent, plucking talents at will like the young Romario and Ronaldo and keeping them for a couple of seasons before cashing in.

Dick Advocaat was one such recipient of this policy at the club, in some halcyon years at PSV. Right now, while they savour this 2012-13 Champions League experience, Celtic are showing a similar acumen.

In terms of the football, the Champions League remains important to Lennon, who is quite open about the fact that the domestic challenge facing Celtic lacks an edge without Rangers.

For all the poison that has flown his way in Glasgow, Lennon has never hidden his love of the Old Firm rivalry. Ibrox, now sorely denied him, ranks as Lennon’s favourite stadium to visit as an opponent.

That said, the Celtic manager will be relishing this Champions League challenge. Despite their late loss in Barcelona, Celtic are still comfortably placed in Group G, with a fine chance of making the last 16.

Lennon is entitled to feel the excitement of the moment – much of it down to his own fervour and determination as a manager.

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