Neil Lennon has been more Arsene Wenger, but can he be more like Sir Alex as Juventus come to town?

Jonny Boyle
neil lennon 300x225 Neil Lennon has been more Arsene Wenger, but can he be more like Sir Alex as Juventus come to town?

Celtic manager Neil Lennon

If you’re a Celtic fan then things couldn’t be going much better at Parkhead right now. 18 points clear in the race to retain their Premier League title, chasing the Scottish Cup they missed out on last year and about to go head-to-head with Serie A champions Juventus in the last 16 of the Champions League, only a League Cup exit to St Mirren two weeks ago could be considered a blip on a fine season.

Added to all that, the club has shown interim financial results from the six months up to December 31st 2012 which sees them become virtually debt-free; amazing considering the current state of a Scottish game doing its best to cope without the presence of Rangers in the Premier League.

At any successful club, the contributors are vast, yet who takes the majority of the credit at Celtic Park?

Chief executive, Peter Lawell, has done an outstanding job in cutting the squad while trying to maintain the club’s competitive standards, increasing revenue and reducing debt. The position Celtic are in financially, and on the field most importantly, is in no small part to Lawell, but there can be only one man who deserves the lion’s share of the credit for their results this season.

He was criticised as a player and his first season and a half in charge was laden with controversy, but for Neil Lennon things are taking shape. Gone are the referee rants – the lack of a serious title challenge may explain that – and the confrontation. Now we see a slicker, more relaxed Lennon who looks at home in a big job.

He’s lived like a king in Scotland, but operates on a shoe-string budget in comparison to his rivals at European level; it’s been nothing short of a miracle that he’s led Celtic to the last 16 of the Champions League after joining the competition at the Third Qualifying Round.

Ian Bankier, club chairman, said: “The revenues generated by the team’s success in Europe this year have significantly impacted our half year results.” Their pre-tax profit has increased from £0.18million to £14.94million and, as Bankier alludes to, the results Lennon has achieved have contributed significantly to that.

After qualifying for the Champions League knockout stages, Lennon was quick to dismiss the need to spend big money to add to his team: “I wouldn’t envisage spending a lot of money. I don’t think I need to.” And the Irishman stayed true to his word. Rami Gershon and Tom Rogic were added to the squad for just over £400k in total and Gary Hooper remained in Glasgow despite the repeated advances of Norwich in January.

Keeping Hooper was music to the ears of the Celtic faithful, but many still expected more players to arrive. Perhaps a high-calibre forward was necessary to take on Juventus? Lennon had other ideas and with Lawell he’s placed trust in the personnel already at Celtic Park. It’s an almost Arsene Wenger-like approach to squad recruitment from Lennon.

He’s realised that the days of spending heavily on wages and transfer fees are over. He understands that he has a capable squad and if he can manage them properly then it will lead to a greater chance of sustained success. Where the comparison ends though, is in the results on the park and where Arsenal remain inconsistent under the legendary Frenchman, albeit in a more difficult league, Celtic only look to be improving under Lennon.

Memorable European results for the Irishman include wins against Barcelona, Spartak Moscow and Rennes as well as draws with Benfica and Udinese. If he’s to add Juventus to that list then he’ll have to continue taking a leaf out the book of another legendary manager he’s been pinching ideas from lately.

“He came up to one of our games a couple of weeks ago. He has been a port of call for me. Particularly in the Champions League. We were mainly playing on the same nights and he was wishing me luck but also giving me a wee titbit on who we were playing.” said Lennon of Sir Alex Ferguson’s impact in preparation for Tuesday night’s first-leg with Juventus.

The Turin giants will more than likely go with their now traditional 3-5-2 system under manager Antonio Conte. Italian legend Andrea Pirlo is the hub of their side and receives most attention, but their focus on playing down the wings is a major feature. Something Lennon has done this season is tailoring his team selection around his opponents – an infamous trait of Ferguson’s.

It will be fascinating to see whether Lennon maintains the 4-5-1 which has served him well in this campaign or match Juventus with a 3-5-2. The fitness of Efe Ambrose, returning from African Cup of Nations duty with Nigeria, may give that idea the kibosh, however Celtic do have players in Victor Wanyama, Charlie Mulgrew, Mikel Lustig and Scott Brown who can operate in a variety of positions throughout defence and midfield.

The threat of Juventus is a different one to Barcelona. Lennon will undoubtedly focus on the unpredictability of Mirko Vucinic and Paul Pogba as well as the goalscoring form of Alessandro Matri, but what about the fact Juventus will give Celtic more of the ball than the Spaniards did? Can Celtic’s counter-attack be fully utilised? What about Juventus’ strength at set-pieces? Conte has already highlighted the visitor’s preparation for the dead ball at Parkhead; can Celtic rely on that as one of their main threats?

It’s going to be a tough night for a club in a healthy position who will benefit no matter the result, but if there’s one man up to the job of leading Celtic to another famous win in Europe then it’s the manager they must thank for getting them this far.

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