Celtic boss Lennon in keep calm for Christmas call

NEIL LENNON has embraced early the spirit of the festive season and already has his wishlist in place.

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Neil Lennon has a festive wishlist of wins
Neil Lennon has a festive wishlist of wins

However, it is the Bhoys in green and white, not the big fellow in red and white, who must deliver for the Celtic boss.

At the moment, they are doing it in style, adding a 5-0 win over Motherwell at Fir Park to their 7-0 victory over Hearts at Tynecastle to make it more go-go-go than ho-ho-ho.

A Kris Commons double, plus a header from Efe Ambrose and strikes from Anthony Stokes and sub Bahrudin Atajic presented Celtic with all three points on Friday night and set them up for Wednesday's final Champions League tie in Barcelona.

Only the mindless actions and wanton vandalism by a group purporting to support the club managed to deflect attention from how well Celtic are performing.

But Lennon was able to look through the smoke bombs and beyond the glamour game in the Nou Camp as he set out his vision to have the past week's work provide the launchpad for a very happy Christmas period. And he has left his players in no doubt what is expected of them.

"I want us to forge on," said Lennon. "I want this team to get better. I want these players to improve their consistency and get used to winning.

"I want us to win the league and get back into the Champions League qualifiers. And we want to tidy up, if we can, in the Scottish Cup."

Lennon is aware that, with only a third of the league campaign completed, his side are already being hailed as champions for the third successive season.

But, having worked so hard to build this momentum, he will not allow anyone to take their eye off the ball or their foot off the gas.

"There is a lot of football to be played," he underlined. "But, at the minute, they have the bit between their teeth.

"We have a big volume of games coming up over Christmas, and we want to remain unbeaten for as long as we can. That's the real challenge that lies ahead for them now."

The pace, power, and punch which left Motherwell reeling the same way as it sent Hearts to the floor is allowing Celtic to mirror the title-clinching surge they embarked upon at this stage of last season.

Lennon believes this is no coincidence, the demands which have been placed on the players since the mid-July finally relenting slightly.

And, with this midweek bringing their European exertions to a close, this rejuvenation should become even more apparent.

"I just think it is the volume of games, really," said Lennon as he considered the pressures his players have been asked to endure to this point.

LENNON injected some youthful exuberance into the proceedings on Friday with Atajic and 17-year-old Liam Henderson coming off a bench which also housed Denny Johnstone and Darnell Fisher.

"There is a fatigue off the Champions League, a psychological fatigue as well as a physical one," he explained. "It is still there because we have not finished the European campaign yet.

"But, the players have shown what they are capable of doing. I think we needed time to find our form, and we are starting to find it at a really good stage of the season.

"Everyone is saying, 'You are going to win the league, and the Champions League is the be-all and end all'. But, it is always a difficult thing to do, competing on both fronts.

"And, with the changes that have been made to the squad in the summer, it is the case that we are in transition.

"Now we are starting to see the likes of Nir Biton, Virgil van Dijk and Teemu Pukki showing what they can bring to the team."

Van Dijk has been doing that for a good few months, and, like the rest of the defence, was rarely troubled on his first-ever visit to Fir Park.

Biton was still sidelined with a virus, but will join Georgios Samaras - also laid low by the bug -and Adam Matthews in travelling with the squad which flies out to Spain tomorrow.

Lennon expects James Forrest to be fit to come back into contention also, with Celtic needing all of their big guns available and playing at their best if they are to take anything from the Nou Camp.

They are bottom of Group H on three points, but are seven clear in the SPFL Premiership, for which Lennon believes they deserve to be applauded.

He said: "It's very pleasing. We needed that win on Friday night. Obviously, it meant our unbeaten record was extended by another game.

"But, there were so many other incentives to win. It puts pressure on anyone chasing us. Seven points of a lead at this stage is healthy."

The margin of victory over Hearts and now Motherwell will lead some to claim Celtic are not being best prepared for a Champions League challenge as they are not being extended domestically.

Lennon would dispute the assertion it is all becoming too easy for them in Scotland.

"We are working very hard to get these results," he insisted.

"The tempo and the fitness levels of the players is excellent at the minute."

On the long run towards the end of the year, it will have to remain so, if Lennon is to have the Christmas he wants for himself and everyone else connected with the club.

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