Dons danger looms large for Celtic

CELTIC's path to their third title in a row is becoming shorter by the week, and the end is now coming into sight.

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Leigh Griffiths got off the mark and celebrates his strike with skipper Scott Brown
Leigh Griffiths got off the mark and celebrates his strike with skipper Scott Brown

But there will be hurdles to overcome between now and the trophy being lifted once again by skipper Scott Brown.

One of the most significant will present itself tomorrow night when Neil Lennon leads his squad to Pittodrie.

Based on results since Celtic put their pedal to the metal and moved up through the gears in pursuit of their 45th league championship, the Dons have been the only club capable of keeping up with them.

Not so much in terms of points, of course, as they trail by 24. But Derek McInnes's side did knock Celtic out of the Scottish Cup at Parkhead on February 8.

And they arrived in Glasgow that day buoyed by the knowledge they were the last Scottish side to have scored against the Hoops, three months earlier.

Aberdeen remain the one side who know how to unlock a defence which has not conceded in their last 13 league outings, a record extended at the weekend when goals from Leigh Griffiths and Teemu Pukki were enough to give Celtic a 2-0 victory over Hearts at Tynecastle.

As the Hoops' team bus headed back to Glasgow, the players listened to updates on how Aberdeen were losing to Partick Thistle to round off a very good day.

But, despite this unexpected setback for the Dons, Lennon recognises his players face a pivotal game in their run-in and has warned them that only their best will be good enough to extend their 26-game unbeaten league campaign and take them a huge step closer to the title.

"When you consider how they played in the cup game, it is going to be a real test for us," said the Celtic boss. "Although they lost on Saturday, Aberdeen have been playing with their tails up.

"They are at home, and I am sure there is going to be a bumper crowd at the game. So, this will be a really good examination for us again."

The tactics deployed so successfully by Aberdeen when they knocked Celtic out of the cup replied heavily on the pace of Niall McGinn and Jonny Hayes on the wings and the platform provided by Barry Robson and Willo Flood in midfield.

However, Lennon does not believe it is about learning from what Aberdeen have done in previous games, but about what Celtic do themselves.

He said: "I think it's more about how we played, and that is something we will go back over with the players."

His side got the perfect prep with their performance in a hostile atmosphere at Tynecastle.

Pittodrie will present no less a test of nerve and character, and Lennon said: "It was a great atmosphere at Tynecastle. But it was a free game for Hearts, as it is for most teams.

"People were not expecting Hearts to get anything out of the game, but they acquitted themselves very well.

"At times we could have been more comfortable in the game. However, we showed good resolve and were always dangerous. Overall, I felt it was a very good win."

Lennon, his players and the support, would have been much more relaxed if the Hoops had pushed home their advantage when peppering the Hearts goal around the half-hour mark.

However, a combination of good goalkeeping, last-gasp defending and profligate finishing ensured the score remained blank.

Lennon reflected: "We didn't hit the target at that point. We were snatching at things. It took a great goal from Leigh to get us up and running just after the break. I felt that once we got in front we would go on to win the game, which we did."

Lennon continued: "I was pleased for Leigh. He showed great composure and it was a brilliant finish. That's him off the mark in his Celtic career, and that's what we're looking for from him.

"It means a lot to him. I hope that's the first of many from him. He is a hard worker, a brilliant professional, and that (his finish) is why we brought him to the club. I've been pleased with his contribution so far."

It may be the last visit of Celtic to Tynecastle for some time, given the capital club's imminent relegation and financial problems.

Perhaps the absence of a fixture which is always played out against a soundtrack of malevolance will make hearts grow fonder - in every sense.

Lennon has often been the target for much spleen-venting when he has been a player or a manager going about his job at the ground.

For once, on Saturday, someone else was copping the vitriol as former Hibee, Griffiths, was the No.1 target.

But the little striker had the last laugh, even mockingly conducting the baying crowd as he was substituted, a reaction quickly quelled by Lennon.

The stage was then left to Fraser Forster to see out another 90 minutes without conceding and extend the Scottish league record he took from Bobby Clark.

Truth be told, he only had to make one save in those nervous 31 minutes before his name went into the history books, smothering a cross-cum-shot which took two attempts to gather into his huge hands.

Hearts did put Forster under a bit more pressure late in the game before Pukki's stoppage-time goal deflated them entirely.

But, as ever, the big man coped more than efficiently and left the field at full-time with his goal intact and reputation enhanced.

Lennon joined the global praise for his shot-stopper, who will hope to be named today in the England squad for next week's friendly against Denmark.

The Hoops boss said: "The record stood for 43 years for a reason. It's a very difficult thing to do, so it was a great day for the club. Fraser was a bit nervous going into the game, and the record would have been preying on his mind.

"Now he can concentrate on, hopefully, going further with it. But I'm sure Fraser will be the first to agree the lads in front of him have done fantastically well, also."

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