The Neil Lennon era begins tonight in the north of Portugal.
At 8pm Celtic will kick off against Braga in a Champions League qualifying match that marks Lennon’s first competitive match as permanent Celtic manager.
The side that came second in the Portuguese championship last season will provide an early test for the new look Celtic squad. Braga may not be the biggest name in European football but an away trip at this stage of the season is not to be taken lightly.
Neil Lennon has impressed so far in his short managerial reign. He has gone about the task of revitalising a squad that failed miserably last season in the type of focussed and determined manner that he always showed on the pitch.
But tonight he makes his European debut as a manager. Lennon will know better than anyone how vital it is to get a season off to a good start.
It is difficult to predict what Lennon’s first starting line up will be. With only a few friendlies played so far there is limited information available. And there are several new signings who will be anxious to prove themselves to manager and support alike.
Perhaps the safest bet is that Lukas Zaluska will start in goal. With the departure of Artur Boruc to Fiorentina he is currently the number one keeper at the club. Lennon is expected to bring in another with experience to challenge him, and talks with David James will take place next weekend.
Defensively there have been additions to the squad. Korean full back Cha Du Ri, who impressed in the World Cup could start on the right side with another new signing Charlie Mulgrew on the left. The exclusion of Andreas Hinkel from the squad is a clear indication that he will be leaving, with a return to his native Germany looking probable.
Central defence has been an area of concern for several years now. With the pursuit of Sol Campbell proving ultimately unsuccessful, attention will turn to Nottingham Forest stopper Kelvin Wilson. But for tonight’s match Lennon has no new options to choose from. I would expect the Dutch pair Glen Loovens and Jos Hooiveld to start tonight, although promising youngster Thomas Rogne is an option.
We could see a five man midfield with the manager looking to play this away leg cautiously. New signings Efrain Juarez from Mexico and Joe Ledley from Wales should play along with captain Scott Brown. In the wide areas Lennon could call on a newly fit Shaun Maloney or Paddy McCourt. It would seem unlikely that two attacking players will be selected though, so we could see Marc Crosas or Ki Sung Yong brought into the centre with either Ledley or Brown deployed in a wider role.
The wild card here is Aiden McGeady. He is expected to leave the club over the next couple of weeks, with Martin O’Neill keen to take the player to Aston Villa. Add in the fact that an injury has meant McGeady has yet to feature and it would seem unlikely that he would play. But it is possible that Lennon will see McGeady’s running power as a valuable weapon in a game where retaining the ball will be a key target. I wouldn’t be surprised to see McGeady played in a central role in front of a four man midfield.
Up front Lennon should deploy a lone striker. Georgios Samaras and Marc-Antoine Fortune have played this role and we should see one playing the first 60 minutes or so before being replaced by the other. This would mean that new signings Gary Hooper and Daryl Murphy need to wait a little longer for their debuts.
Neil Lennon’s rebuilding of Celtic is not yet complete. Several more players are expected to sign before the transfer window closes, meaning that the team is still a work in progress.
It won’t be easy to play a European tie so early in the season with potentially four or more players making their debuts. But we do know that the new manager is organised and able to motivate his men. It will need a disciplined and resolute performance to get a result against a fast and confident Portuguese side sprinkled with Brazilian flair.
I would be extremely happy with a draw tonight which would set the tie up nicely for the second leg at Celtic Park next week. Even a narrow defeat would not be a disaster, especially if it came with an away goal.
Lennon will know that he has a great deal to prove as a rookie manager. His first European tie could give an indication of how the season ahead will play out. And a positive result will give great confidence to a much changed squad.
Neil Lennon was a crucial part of many fine away performances in Europe as a player. Tonight he has to show that he can have the same impact as a manager.
Kick off is less than eight hours away. I can’t wait.