Striking balance benefits Lennon
Celtic 2 Hibernian 1
WITH a month remaining before they collide at Parkhead, the outlines of the first testing phase of the Scottish title race are taking shape for the two contenders.
Yesterday Rangers recorded their first win at Aberdeen since Walter Smith returned to Ibrox as manager in January 2007, but they face another hazardous trip to Tynecastle to meet Hearts in Saturday's televised lunchtime fixture and then are at home to Motherwell -- currently third in the table -- before they travel across Glasgow for the first Old Firm derby of the season.
They must also deal with the demands of Champions League visits by Bursaspor and Valencia and, on the evidence of Scotland's outings this season, are likely to be asked to provide half of Craig Levein's outfield selections for the Euro 2012 double header against the Czech Republic in Prague and Spain at Hampden Park.
Celtic, of course, will also have to yield players to international duties, but Neil Lennon has a more ample squad at his disposal than Smith and the important benefit of added recovery time between fixtures. However, the Northern Irishman is still establishing what his players can and will do when the going gets tough.
He is as much engaged in self-discovery as a manager, although a cursory glance at his league record could suggest that he has little to worry about on that front. Since he succeeded Tony Mowbray in March, Lennon has supervised 14 consecutive league victories and -- as he demonstrated in Celtic's 2-1 win over Hibernian on Saturday -- he has acquired the confidence to omit a forward who scored three goals and was named man of the match in the previous game, the 6-0 destruction of Inverness Caley Thistle in the Co-operative Insurance Cup.
Georgios Samaras got a 20-minute run out when he replaced Gary Hooper but did not make a difference to the scoreline, which, on the one hand, might be read as vindication of Lennon's team selection. Then again, Celtic's goals came from a midfield player and a defender -- Scott Brown, who turned in a notable performance, and Glenn Loovens, respectively.
Some Hoops fans were vocal in their belief that Lennon should have changed his attacking options more quickly, but most seemed relatively content that the team won in the sort of circumstances that frequently saw them stumble under Mowbray, especially since one can scarcely legislate for the sort of goal scored by Derek Riordan, a perfectly placed angled lob that took everyone in the ground by surprise except, probably, himself.
"We can't play brilliantly every week. It is not going to be 6-0 here every game," said Hooper. "We won and that was good enough on the day to keep us at the top with Rangers.
"It was a wee bit edgy at 2-1. They got back into the game with a great finish from Riordan but thankfully we saw it through. We defended well and cleared our lines.
"We scored that early goal and then sat back a wee bit too much. At 2-0 we should have put the game to bed. Later we were kind of stuck between being careful or going and finishing it off.
"I don't think we have really clicked yet as a team. I really don't think we have shown yet what we are capable of. We won 6-0 last week but I believe there's much more to come."
Lennon has a healthy selection of attacking options at his disposal in Hooper, Samaras, Anthony Stokes, Daryl Murphy and Shaun Maloney and he knows he can gain benefit from allowing his front-line candidates to jostle each other for places.
"We've guys in form so the manager has a good choice but a hard choice as well. He's told us every striker will play his part over the course of the campaign," Hooper revealed. "We will stick together. I don't know if he actually means a rotation policy. It might come down to fitness and sharpness."
In contrast to Celtic's unbroken procession of league victories since last spring, Hibs' difficulty in securing a win would make them dubious bets against their own reserve team and visits to the east end of Glasgow would be a good deal more productive if they stopped leaking early goals.
They were visibly uncertain even before Brown netted in the fifth minute after a splendid surge through midfield, although their most productive midfielder, John Rankin, did not believe that nerves affected them unduly.
"That's the third time we've come here in recent times and conceded in the first five minutes," said Rankin. "We found ourselves a goal down very early on and I don't think we had a chance in the first half. We gave ourselves an uphill task and couldn't overcome it.
"But I don't think we were nervous. They were on a high after their 6-0 victory the other night and it was obviously going to be difficult for us."
Rankin dismissed speculation about irreconcilable differences within the squad. "When you lose there are always raised voices. There are always going to be arguments," he said. "It shows that we care. I think we need to show that spirit on the pitch now." (© Daily Telegraph, London)