at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
GLASGOW – Celtic manager Neil Lennon insists his side shouldn't be regarded as underdogs when they face Italian champions Juventus in the Champions League last-16 first leg at Parkhead on Tuesday.
Lennon's team were surprise qualifiers for the last 16 after finishing ahead of Benfica and Spartak Moscow in Group G and caused a major upset when they beat Barcelona en route to their first appearance at this stage in five years.
But despite their impressive feats in the group phase, the Scottish champions are still seen by many pundits as inferior to Juventus, who are favoured to advance to the quarter-finals.
Lennon disagrees with that assessment and claims Celtic's players have the technical ability and mental strength to trouble any team in the competition.
“I think we have been (underestimated) throughout the whole campaign and going into this game we are being made out to be massive underdogs but I don't quite see it that way myself,” Lennon said at a pre-match press conference in Glasgow on Monday.
“There is a real belief, anything can happen over two games. We go into the tie as underdogs but nothing is going to be decided at the end of 90 minutes tomorrow.
“It is over two games and we are prepared to play hard football over 180 minutes.”
While Lennon was rightly keen to talk up his own team, he was also willing to acknowledge Juventus possess top-class players throughout their squad and particularly in attacking areas.
“They have excellent strikers - Mirko Vucinic, Fabio Quagliarella, Sebastian Giovinco, and they have also brought in Nicolas Anelka,” Lennon said.
“But the one who has caught my eye is Alessandro Matri, he looks an excellent young player.
“They are very strong in midfield. Arturo Vidal is playing very well currently, Paul Pogba and Claudio Marchisio, these are class players including Andrea Pirlo who is still one of the finest midfield players in the world.
“So the team is blessed with fantastic footballers but we knew that before the tie or before any preparations were made.
“But it would be dangerous to underestimate Celtic. We have proved already this season that we can be a match for anyone.”
Lennon, who played down controversy over Juventus using the training facilities of Celtic's arch rivals Rangers ahead of the tie, believes a victory over the Italians would rank as one of the defining moments of his career.
The former Celtic midfielder has made it his mission to bring back the dramatic European nights that made the club famous during the 1960s and 1970s, when they regularly competed for the continent's top honours.
“This will be one of my best achievements, to bring these nights back to Celtic,” he said. “It is the only show around, a European night at Celtic.
“It will be a fantastic football arena, for me one of the best atmospheres in world football, never mind European football and it is for our supporters.
“Obviously the players will play their part but to bring these nights back to the club is something that means a lot to me and anyone who has experienced a Champions League night here before will know what I am referring to.
“I don't want to fill the players heads too much from a tactical point of view.
“In terms of motivation, I don't think the players need any more from me.
“For some of them, it is probably the biggest game of their young careers and we are hoping we can take the club further in the competition.” – Sapa-AFP