interview Celtic manager would welcome cup joust with Rangers

NEIL Lennon played down the significance of Celtic's lowest home attendance for almost 20 years yesterday and said too much had been made of Rangers' absence affecting crowd sizes throughout the SPL this season. Only 14,737 came to Parkhead for Tuesday's Scottish Communities League Cup tie against Raith Rovers and that was the lowest home turnout for a competitive game since May 1994. There were also almost 20,000 empty seats at the previous home game against Hibernian in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League, one day before Rangers attracted a larger crowd against Montrose in the third division.

Lennon dismissed the issue, though, and pointed to the fact Celtic had attracted a near capacity crowd against Benfica in their first Champions League group game. Parkhead holds 60,000 although some sources on the night gave the attendance as 53,000. "In three games we've had 115,000 people through the gate and that is pretty healthy for me, especially in this economic climate," said the manager.

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"I think too much is made of Rangers not being in the league. I've seen worse [league] gates for Celtic in my time here. I remember 30,000 for a game with Hibs and for Motherwell as well, so I am pleased with the support that we've been getting. It's asking a lot for supporters to come out for three home games in a row and fill the place with 40,000-50,000 people. There's not many clubs in the world can do that, never mind in Britain.

"I think that for League Cup games, at this time of year, the crowds generally go down. When you have a big game like Benfica it's only natural that you lose a few fans for the next one. In midweek you lose something with the Irish-based fans because of difficulty with travelling and cost. It was a League Cup game with Raith Rovers on a horrible night: we were just thankful of anyone being in the stadium."

The handsome 4-1 victory secured by Gary Hooper's four goals eased Celtic into the League Cup quarter-finals, the draw for which will be held next Thursday afternoon. The presence of both Old Firm clubs raises the prospect of a derby, which cannot happen in the league for at least three seasons. Rangers manager Ally McCoist had said he would welcome any opposition, including Celtic, so long as his team had a home draw. Lennon said exactly the same yesterday.

"At this stage I'd be happy with a home draw, whoever we play," he said. "There are a lot of good teams left. I was a little surprised there were no real upsets because there were a few potential ones. Dundee United had a good result at Queen of the South and Caley Thistle got through against Stenhousemuir. So there are seven SPL teams and Rangers, who have all the makings of an SPL team anyway. The competition looks healthy.

"Would an Old Firm game be good for the Scottish game right now? A game like that is good for the game at any time. I would welcome it if that's who we draw. But I would also welcome Dundee United, or Inverness, or St Mirren. I'd take this team anywhere."

Tomorrow he will take them to the home of the team currently at the top of the Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League. For the first time in seven years Celtic will play an away league game at 3pm on a Saturday. "We can all get a lie-in," he said.

"There should be a good atmosphere. It's a game we're looking forward to getting our teeth into. We just need to keep the momentum going. We are not looking to next week [the Champions League tie against Spartak Moscow in Russia on Tuesday] at all, we're just concentrating on Motherwell now."

Motherwell manager Stuart McCall and his players were bruised by their disappointing performance and 2-0 cup defeat against Rangers at Ibrox on Wednesday night. "Whether or not Stuart gets a positive or negative reaction I don't know," said Lennon. "But I don't know if that performance would have done us any favours. I'm sure they'll be pretty motivated to play better than they did against Rangers."

Georgios Samaras has returned to training and will be in the squad for the Motherwell and Spartak Moscow games. He will wear a light cast to protect the chipped bone in his elbow. "If we can give him some game time, we will. The cast is very light but it won't really be tested until he gets a whack on it or falls on it and we'll see what sort of reaction he gets."

Samaras was injured while on international duty three weeks ago and the Greek national team's medical staff had said he could be out for up to two months. "Initially the diagnosis was a bit over the top," said Lennon. "When we got him back and had a look we realised it would be two to three weeks.

"The only ones who will probably miss out at Motherwell would be Anthony Stokes and Lassad Nouioui. Everyone else is fine. The guys who played on Tuesday had a recovery day and the rest trained. Samaras, Joe Ledley, Biram Kayal, Paddy McCourt, Mikael Lustig and Miku all came through training so the squad is pretty healthy. It's a nice sort of headache to have. The midfield is a really good department in the squad. It has been pretty strong since we have come in and [new signing] Efe Ambrose can play there too. We're spoiled for choice but I'm delighted with it."