Neil upbeat despite lack of New Year fireworks...

AT THE end of the year in which the thunder – and the championship – was finally brought back to Celtic, 2012 was allowed to go out with a whimper thanks to a mis-firing day at Easter Road.

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Georgios Samaras struggled to make his mark against Hibs
Georgios Samaras struggled to make his mark against Hibs

The 1-0 defeat to Hibernian may give the chasing pack in the title race some unexpected hope going into the new year.

But while they continue to draw with or beat one another, it's difficult to see how there is going to be any seismic upset in the SPL.

Still the fallibility of Celtic – even without the encumbrance of Champions League football at the moment – remains, and is one of the things manager Neil Lennon has warned they must shed in 2013.

The club want to kickstart their 125th birthday celebrations on Wednesday with a win when Motherwell are the first footers at Parkhead.

And with a frantic festive schedule coming to a close, it is little wonder Lennon is ready to embrace the break which arrives after the midweek encounter.

The signs of fatigue are clear, and nowhere more so than at the sharp end in front of goal.

Celtic's first competitive game this season was on August 1, against HJK Helsinki, with a plethora of warm-up matches before that vital encounter.

Wednesday will be game No.35, with 10 of those on the ultra-competitive European stage, which has cranked up the intensity significantly.

The good news for Lennon and his battle-weary troops is that the second half of the campaign, although spanning the same time period, will see them play far fewer games.

There will be 17 SPL ties, a maximum of two in the Scottish Communities League Cup and four in the William Hill Scottish Cup.

Two Champions League ties against Juventus in the last 16 will be the main focus for fans and players alike.

But even if they continue to punch above their weight and defy the odds to go all the way to the final on May 25, that will only add another five games to their schedule – though, what a five games they would be.

So the bulk of the campaign is already behind Celtic: Now the part where the rewards for all their hard work begins.

By the time they return from their training camp in Marbella refreshed and ready to face Hearts on January 19, Lennon expects to have a clutch of currently injured players back into contention to add their weight to the final push.

James Forrest could be the most important of them. His pace and ability to beat an opponent was missed badly against Hibs, who held on well to the early lead given to them by livewire Leigh Griffiths.

The predatory skills of Anthony Stokes have been missed since August, and the experience of Kris Commons and Joe Ledley have also become more appreciated during the time they have been unavailable through injury.

So, even if Lennon does not add any new faces to his squad in this window, they should still emerge better equipped after this break.

Their season of peaks and troughs appeared to have stabilised as they ploughed through a heavy December schedule, until that Easter Road defeat.

But Lennon is now experienced enough not to panic, trusting his players to respond to this setback in a positive manner.

The generosity of spirit which marks this time of year was still with him when he praised his side's performance at Easter Road.

"I'm not going to be critical of the players for how they played," said Lennon.

"I'm critical of myself for the way I set up the team to start with.

"But the attitude they showed was brilliant, and there were parts of the game I really enjoyed."

Going into this match seven points clear with a game in hand was not a factor, in the opinion of Lennon, who has set his side a target of at least 93 points this season.

"I don't think there was any complacency about us," insisted the Celtic manager.

"The goal we lost was disappointing from our point of view. Having watched it again, it was really slack defending and decision-making.

"That really sparked us, and for 70 minutes, we were very, very good."

Certainly, there was no lack of effort, but there was a distinct lack of sparkle or cutting edge, especially when his men were asked to break down the home defence.

The constant use of high balls into the centre from Mikael Lustig and Emilio Izaguirre – can the real Honduran be returned in 2013, please – played into the hands of the well-organised Hibs central defence of Tim Clancy and James McPake.

The guile and nous required to pick a pass down a channel was absent, as was the sharpness required to convert what chances were forthcoming in the capital.

Lennon recognised that, and tried to make changes to turn possession into goals.

He said: "In the centre of midfield we were excellent with Victor Wanyama and Efe Ambrose, and they really drove the game for us.

"But Efe was on a booking, so we decided to get Beram Kayal on and Thomas Rogne off.

"They were decisions that didn't cost us anything in terms of attacking prowess.

"We threw more attacking players on with Beram, Paddy McCourt and Dylan McGeouch.

"We needed someone to try and open the door, and we almost managed to do that a couple of times."


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