By Craig Turnbull
It is an issue which coaches and managers come across and few succeed: How to beat Barcelona.
Some will opt to try and beat the Blaugrana at their own game by trying to outscore them, like the weekend's 5-4 pulsating match at the Riazor against Deportivo, while others prefer to 'park the bus' and wait for their opportunity to strike on the counter-attack.
But if there is anyone at Celtic Park right now who may be able to shed some light on how to emerge victorious over the Catalans, then manager Neil Lennon may have the answer.
The 41-year-old was part of the Hoops' side that recorded an historic 1-0 victory over the Liga giants back in March 2004 courtesy of an Alan Thompson goal, in a match which also saw three players sent off. To date, it is the only time the Scottish champions have managed to beat Tito Vilanova's men in eight attempts.
Heading into the second leg of that tie, and with Celtic holding on to a slender one-goal advantage, the Scots showed their resilience by recording a scoreless draw in Camp Nou to progress to the next round of the then Uefa Cup at the expense of Barcelona. Lennon had once again got one over the Catalans - a side which featured the likes of goalkeeper Victor Valdes, defender Carles Puyol, midfield lynchpin Xavi, and the tremendously talented Brazilian, Ronaldinho to name a few.
However, Xavi and Co. would exact their revenge the next season when they were paired with the Hoops again, this time in the Champions League and, after a 3-1 result for the Blaugrana at Celtic Park; they drew 1-1 in Catalunya ensuring the Scots would be eliminated from the tournament. It was a valiant effort from then manager Martin O'Neill's team and although there might have been a hint of fortune about John Hartson's equaliser, that is certainly the type of luck they will need on Tuesday night against their formidable opponents in which Lennon has described as his "ultimate test".
And it is fair to say that the Celtic boss has had some examinations of his credentials already with the SPL champions, though not all have been passed with flying colours. Appointed as manager in the summer of 2010, success on the European stage was few and far between for Lennon.
A heavy 3-0 defeat to Braga in the Northern Irishman's first real European test meant the Hoops had failed to make the Champions League group stages as the 2-1 victory in the return leg was not enough. But worse was to follow, as they suffered an ignominious 4-0 away defeat to Dutch outfit Utrecht ensuring Celtic would miss out on European football altogether.
|"If there is anyone at Celtic Park who may be able to shed some light on how to emerge victorious over the Catalans, it may be Neil Lennon"
Their turbulent form on the continent continued the following year, where the Scots faced Sion in a play-off fixture for the Europa League. After a scoreless draw in the first leg, the Swiss side highlighted the Hoops' fragility away from home once more by beating them 3-1. However, Sion were eliminated for breaking a transfer ban imposed on the club which meant Celtic would take their place.
Drawn with the likes of eventual winners Atletico Madrid, Serie A side Udinese and French Ligue 1 outfit Rennes, Neil Lennon's charges gained some valuable experience which they have taken into this campaign. They have even overcome their away hoodoo with wins in the qualifying stages over HJK Helsinki and Helsingborgs, as well as matchday two's impressive victory over Russian side Spartak Moscow in the Luzhniki Stadium. It signalled the end of a long overdue win away from Parkhead, their first away win in the Champions League in 21 games.
And as Neil Lennon watched on from the stands at the Riazor on Saturday, as Lionel Messi - arguably the greatest player of all time - hit his 21st hat-trick for the Catalan giants, his 71st goal this calendar year, a wave of emotion must have swept over the manager.
From sheer admiration at watching the mesmerising talent on display, to a flicker of hope that his side might actually pull off a quite unimaginable result as Barcelona's Jordi Alba found his own net, the fourth goal the visitors had conceded on the night. It has been well-documented about the frailties of Tito Vilanova's defence, and Celtic can take confidence from this makeshift back four with Javier Mascherano and Alex Song likely to fill in with the absence of skipper Puyol and Gerard Pique.
However, the Blaugrana are top of the Primera Division as well as Group G leaders and the task awaiting Celtic, although not insurmountable, remains a stern test of Lennon and his players. The last time Barca were beaten at home in Europe was against Rubin Kazan, where they lost 2-1 back in 2009.
The hosts sit on 99 games won in the Champions League and few would bet against them making it 100 on Tuesday.
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