Thursday 23 November 2017

Lennon hoping for home comfort

Roddy Forsyth

We have now reached the fourth instalment in the Old Firm equivalent of the World Series and one salient fact stands out above all others.

Should Celtic beat their oldest and fiercest rivals at home tomorrow, the destination of the Scottish title will be in their control.

It seems that every meeting with Rangers since Neil Lennon took charge at Parkhead has been a milestone of one sort or another, but in this record season for Glasgow derbies -- another three follow tomorrow's episode -- the Celtic manager is at last in a position to deliver a crucial psychological blow.

With five points between the teams, Rangers have been able to comfort themselves with the thought that victories in their two games in hand would restore their lead in the SPL race. Such consolation would evaporate with a Celtic victory, although Lennon was careful to downplay the possibility.

"Every Old Firm game you want to win. We may have a slight advantage with the game being at home but at the minute there is not much between the teams," said the Hoops manager.

"I do not think it will be a defining moment in the season one way or another but psychologically it could give the team that wins an advantage -- a bit of momentum.

"We are in good nick physically and mentally -- that comes with results and performances and I know it can all change very, very quickly -- but you can see there is a bit of confidence and they are enjoying their work.

"It is interesting that we are into our fourth Old Firm game and none of the home teams have won. Maybe that is credit to the way the opposition sets up for the away fixture."

It remains to be seen what toll Rangers' exertions in Thursday's Europa League tie with Sporting Lisbon has taken on the Ibrox side.

Celtic have not been in combative action this week, but the same cannot be said of one of Lennon's predecessors.

Gordon Strachan, with typical candour, talked of being sucked into conspiracy theories during his spell at Parkhead.

"When I was Celtic manager, I got a wee bit daft like that," he revealed.

"I asked myself, 'is everybody really against us?' That's because I was listening to too much of what was going on around me.

"There were people inside the club who believed it and fans who said the same thing."

Lennon (right) promptly rendered a lively defence of his own conduct and pointed to the notorious incident at Tannadice in October -- when referee Dougie McDonald awarded a penalty kick to Celtic, rescinded it and then lied about his reasons in his match report -- as the pivotal issue of the season.

"I do not think we have contrived anything. At Dundee United, a referee did not tell the truth. Another official came out and told the whole story and for some reason we were getting the blame for it," said Lennon.

"I did not understand that. I do not know how you can blame Celtic for that situation. I was invited into the referee's room after the game at Tannadice. I wasn't even going to bother going in.

"So how we as a club get the blame for that is beyond me. We have complained about decisions that have gone against us but I think we are entitled to do that, as any other club is.

"But it seems everyone points the finger at us. How can anybody say there is a bias when Celtic have won three championships (of the last six)? Have I ever said there was a bias against us? Have I ever said there was a conspiracy? I don't think I have.

"I have never, ever said that a referee has gone out to conspire against us. I have criticised decisions, which I think I am right to do. So I don't know why the finger gets pointed at us all the time."

When it was pointed out to Lennon that after he had been sent to the stand during the 2-0 defeat by Hearts at Tynecastle in November -- when Joe Ledley was dismissed and Celtic were denied a penalty that the manager thought was unarguable -- and had declared that the officials "would probably have their story ready", he produced a sidestep that would have impressed Lionel Messi.

"Well, that was on the back of what happened at Tannadice," said Lennon.

However, he was also conciliatory towards Iain Brines, who will referee his first Old Firm derby tomorrow.

"If he referees the game as well as he dealt with being fourth official at Ibrox during the Scottish Cup game recently then we'll be in for an excellent game," added Lennon. "He was top class that day."

One situation which will be an immediate focus of attention will be the duel between the Celtic captain Scott Brown and Rangers' contentious January acquisition El Hadji Diouf.

Those whose taste runs to betting on red cards will find the bookmakers entirely obliging in the matter of odds against either of those players -- or both -- getting their matching orders.

Brown and Diouf traded insults during and for several days after the 2-2 Scottish Cup draw at Ibrox earlier this month.

The Celtic captain received a yellow card for celebrating in Diouf's face after netting Celtic's second equaliser -- and afterwards described it as "the best booking I have ever had".

The Senegalese player will face a hostile reception at Parkhead, having spat on a Celtic fan while playing there for Liverpool in a UEFA Cup tie in 2003 -- a crime that earned him a £5,000 fine at Glasgow Sheriff Court.

Lennon was keen to play down the feud between the two players and insisted that he has no problem with a healthy on-field rivalry.

"Every Old Firm game is different," he said. "Sometimes it can get a bit feisty but there is nothing wrong with that, as long as it doesn't spill into something outrageous. Basically you want to keep 11 players on the pitch.

"Each game has its own personality. It might be two different players you are talking about after Sunday's game."

The former Celtic skipper was involved in some midfield battles of his own with Rangers players -- particularly Barry Ferguson and Fernando Ricksen.

"It was more banter than anything else," claimed Lennon. "Me and Fergie used to have words -- and Ricksen. He was always good to have a wind-up with. But I wouldn't tell you what I said to him and vice-versa."

Lennon felt there was nothing wrong with Brown's celebration at Ibrox and sidestepped a question over whether he would have a problem if a Rangers player followed suit tomorrow.

"Listen, I would have a problem if a Rangers player scored -- full stop," said Lennon.

Celtic are perceived to have an advantage given that Rangers played against Sporting Lisbon on Thursday night while the team from the east end of Glasgow had a free week.

But Lennon is not sure that extra game will hamper Rangers. "When I played you just wanted to play games -- you didn't have to do much training in between," he said.

"Maybe we might be a bit fresher or Maybe the extra game will do Rangers the world of good. We will have to wait to see what happens." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Celtic v Rangers,

Live, tomorrow, Sky Sports 1, 12.30

Irish Independent

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