Lennon vows to put sparkle back into Celtic season

IT WAS not quite perfect symmetry.

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County perform a guard  of honour for Celtic, main, while debut Bhoy Eoghan O'Connell congratlates Kris Commons on his leveller
County perform a guard of honour for Celtic, main, while debut Bhoy Eoghan O'Connell congratlates Kris Commons on his leveller

But, on reflection, it didn't really matter.

Celtic's SPFL Premiership campaign started back on August 3 with a home game against Ross County, the day the league championship flag was unfurled.

The underdogs from Dingwall hadn't read the script, and actually took the lead before losing 2-1 to Neil Lennon's champions.

On Saturday, it was supposed to be another party day, with County once again playing the role of the supporting act as the Hoops took centre stage for their bow.

Once more, Derek Adams' plucky band scored first, and this time Celtic could only equalise, Kris Commons grabbing his 28th of a phenomenal scoring year.

The winner proved beyond their reach, like the Premiership trophy which was not present for their muted post-match lap of honour.

The point secured by Melvin de Leeuw's first-half opener means much, much more to County than the two dropped by the champions, though it does reduce their end-of- season target from setting a new points record to equalling the one currently held by the Hoops team of 2001-02.

It also means that Fraser Forster can afford to lose just one more goal if he is to beat the record for the fewest conceded, set that same season at 18.

To that end, the big keeper will be delighted to see Ross County heading for the dog-fight to avoid the play-off place.

In a season when so many clubs have found it impossible to get the ball into the Celtic net even once, Ross County have achieved this goal in each of the the three matches they have played against the champions.

The 2-1 defeat on the opening day and Saturday's 1-1 draw came either side of a 4-1 defeat in Dingwall.

It hardly makes County Celtic's bogy team, but they clearly do have something about them which can expose flaws in the Hoops back line.

From now until the end of the season, Celtic will be up against what the league table decrees is the best opposition Scotland has to offer, starting with Saturday's final match before the split, against Dundee United at Tannadice.

When the fixtures come out today, the day the trophy will be handed to captain Scott Brown will become known, and the plans for the final hurrah of this season can be put in place.

Quite what will happen between now and then is in the lap of the gods, and the minds of the Celtic players.

While Lennon has worked hard to keep them motivated and playing entertaining, winning football, the fact they have eased back since crossing the finishing line at Firhill last midweek is irrefutable, on the evidence of Saturday's performance.

Whether that is a subconscious act, or a natural reaction by bodies which have been grafting hard since Celtic's first Champions League qualifier in Belfast back in mid-July, the result is the same, and clear for all to see.

Lennon refused to chastise them for their under-par performance against Ross County just hours before they went out together to raise a glass or two to three-in-a-row.

But he will spend this week trying to cajole his players back into the form which made them such runaway winners of the title because, for him there are more spoils to be gained.

Most of all, Lennon does not want what happens in the final few weeks of the campaign to determine how 2013-14 is remembered by those only too eager to pick holes in Scottish football, and its champions.

He said: "I don't want to see too many performances like the one we had against Ross County, put it that way.

"There was an edge missing to our game, which was totally understandable.

"And the game was far more important to Ross County than it was to us because of the situation both clubs are in. But, we will make sure our season is not allowed to fizzle out.

"Saturday was more about a celebration of what we have achieved this season. And, you have to remember that, for some of these lads, it is their first time as champions.

"They should enjoy these moments, and I am sure they are doing just that."

One way to inject fresh energy into a side which has been on the go for almost eight months is to introduce the natural exuberance of youth.

Raw 18-year-old defender, Eoghan O'Connell, was handed his debut against Ross County, playing just behind 17-year-old midfielder, Liam Henderson.

There are other rising stars hoping they will be next to be rewarded for their efforts in the Under-20s side.

But, Lennon is quick to point out that, with several first-team players unavailable through injury, any promotions will not just be about giving youth its chance.

"I don't know if playing young players would keep the energy levels up," he said.

"I wanted to play Eoghan and Liam on Saturday, because it was a good opportunity to put them into the side and give them some fantastic experience.

"We also had Marcus Fraser and John Herron on the bench.

"But, as well as wanting to give them their chance, we have also picked up a few injuries, with Adam Matthews and Charlie Mulgrew joining those already out after picking up hamstring injuries in midweek.

"Seeing so many players out is a concern.

"Fortunately, the hard work this season has been done and we can look forward to the final six games and trying one or two different things."

Football

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