Neil Lennon inspired by Ajax as Euro Super League looms
If Neil Lennon lands the Celtic manager’s job on a permanent basis at the end of this month, the first date ringed in red on his office calendar at Lennoxtown will be 18 June.
That is when Celtic will discover their opponents for the first of four qualifying rounds they must negotiate to reach the group stage of the Champions League next season.
It is familiar territory for Lennon who led the club successfully through two sets of qualifiers during his first stint in charge, including the memorable run to the last 16 in 2012-13 when they defeated Barcelona at Celtic Park.
The Scottish champions crave regular participation in the business phase of Europe’s elite club tournament but that ambition is becoming increasingly difficult to fulfil. Aside from the increased number of qualifying rounds introduced in recent years, uncertainty remains over the future format of the competition.
Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli has controversially proposed a promotion and relegation element to the Champions League from 2024, with 24 of the 32 teams in the group stage guaranteed qualification regardless of their domestic league position.
It is still unclear how this could impact on bigger clubs from smaller nations such as Scotland, but Lennon believes Celtic must strive over the next few years to ensure they are in a position to take their place in what may essentially become a European Super League.
“We’ve got to prepare for that, try to progress and be ready for that when it comes,” said Lennon. “I think it’s really important to try to get into that upper echelon and stay in there.
“I’ve got 100 per cent faith in (chief executive) Peter Lawwell fighting Celtic’s corner on that one. It’s important for Scottish football. You look at clubs from other nations, some of the Eastern European clubs for example, who don’t get a fair crack of the whip sometimes.
“The Dutch clubs have been the same but look at Ajax this season. They were the first team to make it to the semi-finals after starting out in the qualifying rounds.
“They have had a stellar season, been a breath of fresh air. They play wonderful football, they’ve gone and beaten Real Madrid, they’ve gone and beaten Juventus. I haven’t seen an Italian team get done like that on their own ground in a European game for a long, long time.
“Ajax have been absolutely outstanding, so it’s got to give inspiration to a lot of clubs, including ourselves. We have four qualifiers to play which is a big ask because you will always get tough draws in there. But it’s important we keep trying to progress in Europe in the right way to be ready for that new format if it does come in.”
Like every other football fan, Lennon was enthralled by last week’s Champions League semi-finals and the epic comebacks staged by Liverpool and Spurs to reach next month’s showpiece in Madrid.
He also takes pleasure in seeing two of his former Celtic players, Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk and Spurs midfielder Victor Wanyama, shining at the highest level of the club game. “That should whet our players’ appetite for the Champions League and what can be achieved,” added Lennon. “You’ve got Virgil, Victor and also Andy Robertson, who were all plying their trade in Scotland a few years ago, now going to play in the Champions League final. Scottish football’s crap, is it?
“It was unbelievable stuff in the semi-finals. It was just sheer will and determination from both teams. Liverpool just completely overpowered Barcelona in the end. You thought there might have been a lull in the game when it went to 3-0, but Liverpool don’t know how to lull.
“In the second semi, Mauricio Pochettino was brave with his substitution and bringing on the big striker Fernando Llorente. The sheer will of Spurs got them over the line. It was nothing to do with tactics. Just sheer will, determination and a bit of luck. You need luck as well. Ajax hit the post and Hugo Lloris made a couple of good saves.
“You end up thinking ‘could Spurs’name be on the trophy?’ They had two epics against Manchester City and two epics against Ajax after scraping through the group. You can acknowledge Spurs as viable winners of the trophy.”