Sunday 17 November 2019

Lennon quick to play down treble talk

Celtic striker Gary Hooper is expecting an intense battle at Celtic Park tonight. Photo: Reuters
Celtic striker Gary Hooper is expecting an intense battle at Celtic Park tonight. Photo: Reuters

Ewing Grahame

Neil Lennon won the domestic treble in his first season as a Celtic player under Martin O'Neill in 2000-01. Now, a decade later, he is gunning for a unique double.

Victory over Rangers in tonight's Scottish Cup fifth-round replay will significantly increase the odds on him completing a clean sweep of trophies in his inaugural season as a manager.

No one has ever achieved that before, never mind at the first time of asking. It would be a remarkable feat, should the 39-year-old pull it off, but he was not of a mind to consider that prospect yesterday. "I've not thought about a treble," he said. "It is a very hard thing to do."

Lennon could also make Old Firm history by becoming the first Celtic manager to record a four-game unbeaten sequence against Walter Smith by prevailing at Parkhead.

Liam Brady, Lou Macari, Wim Jansen, Gordon Strachan and Tony Mowbray couldn't get half-way there, although Tommy Burns recorded three successive draws against Rangers in 1995-96.

Claiming a place in the quarter-finals would also guarantee Lennon an overall winning record against the Ibrox manager, something no other Celtic manager has achieved during Smith's two stints at Ibrox.

It would give him four victories, one draw and one defeat from six encounters, with only two -- the League Cup final and the final SPL fixture at Ibrox -- remaining before the 63-year-old is replaced by Ally McCoist at the end of the season.

Again, though, he refused to personalise the issue. "I don't think about a personal record with Walter Smith," he said. "That is not important to me at all. What is important is winning the league and winning the two cups if we can."

For that to happen a significant improvement on Sunday's woeful display during the 2-0 defeat by Motherwell will be required. Not to mention demanded.


"We didn't train on Monday -- it was a recovery day," said Lennon. "But the players know they have to do better than they did at Fir Park and they have a great chance to put it right. I've spoken to them as a group and they know they have not done themselves justice. I hope (Sunday's reverse) can eventually prove to be a positive for us.

"I don't want to make a big thing of it because the players have performed extremely well over a good unbeaten run. Their form had been fantastic. Maybe we took the eye off the ball. They are a younger group, but they know themselves they were not doing what they had done in the past two months: the intensity was missing."

Lennon revealed that he had anticipated such a stumble in the wake of the previous weekend's dismantling of Rangers. The mundanity of Motherwell was always going to leave them vulnerable in the immediate aftermath of that 3-0 victory over their arch rivals.

"To drop points after an Old Firm win was disappointing, but not entirely unexpected," he said. "The euphoria last week was big around the club and sometimes you can get a flatness after that -- and we were certainly flat on Sunday.

"I did have a fear there: I've seen it happen before. I even mentioned how we beat Liverpool in Europe and then lost at Inverness in the Scottish Cup four days later. I've seen it many times."

There will be enforced changes for Lennon. Goalkeeper Lukasz Zaluska will step in for the suspended Fraser Forster, sent off in the 2-2 draw at Ibrox, while midfielder Joe Ledley is also banned. Full-back Mark Wilson is doubtful with an ankle injury, with Efrain Juarez ready to take his place.

Rangers defender Kyle Bartley has spoken of how unhappy his team-mates were when Celtic captain Scott Brown celebrated his equaliser at Ibrox by gloating in the face of El Hadji Diouf and Celtic striker Gary Hooper expects the Scotland midfielder to be the subject of some bruising challenges. "He's going to be a target all over the place, I think, after the way he celebrated," he said.

Hooper admits that it was only during the 3-0 win 10 days ago that he realised how big a club Celtic was and what victory in these meetings means to the fans. "It was incredible," he said. "You couldn't hear the other players on the pitch. You couldn't hear yourself think. It was that loud." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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