Champions League: Celtic boss hopes to catch AC Milan 'cold'

By Colin MoffatBBC Scotland in Milan
AC Milan v Celtic: Neil Lennon on Champions League pressure

Celtic boss Neil Lennon hopes they can take advantage of AC Milan's indifferent start to the season when Champions League Group H gets under way on Wednesday.

Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri is dealing with a long injury list and the Rossoneri have won just one from three in Serie A.

"We hope we can catch them cold," said Lennon.

"The coach hasn't had a chance to find his team and get a run of form."

Allegri said he only has 13 fit players, with .

"It's unfortunate for him but I'm sure Milan will get stronger as the campaign progresses, as they always do," was Lennon's reply.

"I can't offer up a lot of sympathy. They can bring in Alessandro Matri, who cost a lot of money; money that myself or my board of directors could only ever dream of paying for players."

Matri, who scored in both legs as Juventus demolished Celtic 5-0 on aggregate in the last 16 of the tournament last season, is likely to partner Mario Balotelli up front.

And Lennon was full of admiration for the former Manchester City forward.

"Balotelli is a wonderful footballer," he enthused.

"He is very powerful, very skilful so quick and strong with the way he holds off defenders and he is a good finisher.

"People question his mentality but I'd have him in my team if I could.

"He's still so young and has a great future ahead of him."

Lennon's final European match as a player for Celtic was a last 16 Champions League tie in the San Siro in 2007, with the hosts going through thanks to a wonderful solo goal from Kaka in extra-time.

"That was a fantastic team, full of great experienced players like Maldini, Gattuso, Seedorf, Inzaghi and Pirlo and they went on to win the tournament," recalled Lennon.

"The team has gone through a transitional phase and is much younger now.

"There has been a re-think about the club's philosophy.

"And they played with real zest, energy and enthusiasm in the two games against Barcelona last season."

Like Celtic, the Italians were eliminated in the last 16, beaten 4-2 by the Catalans having established a two-goal lead in the home leg.

The highlights of Celtic's previous campaign were a home win against Barcelona and ending a long sequence of misery away from home with victory over Spartak Moscow.

Looking ahead to kick-off, Lennon said: "It feels fantastic.

"Everything we have worked on since our elimination in February has been geared up to making a return.

"I'm really pleased with the way my players dealt with the pressure of qualifying.

"Now this is a different kind of pressure. Can we compete?

"Expectations are not so high this time - it will be hugely difficult to emulate last year.

"We are still integrating players to the squad but the core of the squad are stalwarts from last season and that experience will stand them in good stead for this campaign."

Celtic forward Georgios Samaras
Samaras is not overawed by the task facing Celtic

Georgios Samaras was a star performer for Celtic last term, particularly away from home as he scored on the road in both qualifying ties and in all three group games.

And the Greek forward believes Celtic can hold their own in a heavyweight section that includes Barcelona and Ajax.

"Celtic is as big a club as any of the others," he explained.

"We know the history of the club and we are really proud but we want to create our own history.

"The group is really tough, with some great teams but we are ready for the challenge."

Celtic will be hard pressed to shackle a front line of Matri and Balotelli but Lennon hopes his side can cause problems for the depleted hosts.

"It's very difficult to set a team out to play for a draw, there are so many variables," he explained.

"We always set the team out to win and tomorrow will be no different."