Wily Lennon leaves nothing to chance
It was only to be expected that Neil Lennon would try to plot Aberdeen's downfall in Celtic's dressing-room at Hampden Park. The twist is that he did it there 24 hours before Saturday's League Cup semi-final got under way.
Scarred by his only previous experience in charge of Celtic in a semi-final -- the Scottish Cup meeting with Ross County last April, which ended in an extraordinary victory for the unrated First Division side -- Lennon determined that he would leave as little as possible to chance on this occasion.
His players knew all about their Aberdeen counterparts, having played them and won 1-0 at Parkhead the previous weekend, so the Celtic manager decided to make sure that they would not be ambushed by their surroundings.
"We have quite a few players who had never been inside Hampden Park before," said Lennon. "So on Friday after training we took the squad over so that they could see it for themselves. They went into the dressing-room, had a look at the pitch and we talked about one or two other little details. For example, the pitch seems bigger than it is because of the curves behind the goals.
"We chatted about bits and pieces like that and then we left. I thought it was a worthwhile exercise."
All that was left for Lennon to fine-tune was his players' attitude, the Achilles' heel that had left last year's side exposed to Ross County's exuberant forays. He could hardly have expected Aberdeen to be so complicit in their own destruction.
Celtic's first three corner-kicks produced three goals. Aberdeen were further adrift inside 20 minutes than even Andy Murray midway through the second set in Melbourne yesterday, although, in another spectacular example of self-harm, Derek Young's crazy handball gifted the penalty kick from which Anthony Stokes netted the fourth, to complete a sequence which the Irishman confessed had taken him wholly by surprise, for all Lennon's attention to detail.
"We knew they were going to have a go at us so we thought, let's get at them early. We didn't think we were going to score four goals in the first half, mind you," said the Dubliner.
Kris Commons could not have desired a more accomplished debut and was named man of the match after inaugurating the rout with a speculative effort, which found the net after Mark Wilson's corner-kick was not cleared properly. Commons' initial thought was probably to cross, but the flight of the ball confounded Jamie Langfield in the Aberdeen goal and Stokes was prepared to be generous about its provenance.
"His goal was unbelievable so it was a great debut for him. I think he definitely meant it. I don't think there was much else on in the box, so I'll give him that," said the forward.
In fact, the gifts were almost wholly supplied by Aberdeen, who neglected the most basic principles of defending to the extent that Charlie Mulgrew and Thomas Rogne had only to apply their skulls to subsequent corner-kicks to put the game out of sight of Aberdeen, long before Young's unfathomable decision to throw an arm up at a Stokes free-kick put his side four goals down.
"You cannot afford to start any game in the manner we did," the Pittodrie midfielder lamented. "It was a piece of nonsense. We were three down in 20 minutes and then I gave away a stupid penalty. Why it happened, I'll never know. It was just an instinctive thing. I really don't know what happened or why.
"We are all absolutely gutted. Personally, I am devastated. We prepared really well for the game, but when you concede like we did you deserve to lose."
While Aberdeen spent the rest of the weekend tending to their wounds, Celtic are entitled to consider that a campaign on three fronts -- the championship plus the two domestic knockout trophies -- is gaining impressive momentum at the ideal moment.
"I think it's all coming together," said Stokes. "It's at a good time in the season because the schedule is getting very hectic with a lot of big games, so it's a good time to come good and I just hope we can keep it up and keep the momentum going and win games.
"The gaffer's been brilliant since he came in and I think all of us as players want to do it for him. The main thing about it is confidence. We're winning games and this cup final is something to look forward to -- it's silverware and at the end of the day we want to win every trophy we possibly can."
The chances of that happening can only be increased if Lennon's managerial learning process allows him to get the drop on other opponents as surely as he did with Aberdeen.