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Anthony Stokes has kept his eye on Old Firm rivals as Celtic look to cut the gap

SOME like to watch, while others prefer to cover their eyes or opt for the distraction of retail therapy.

Anthony Stokes has been in fine form
Anthony Stokes has been in fine form

Anthony Stokes is in the first category and the Celtic striker has been rewarded for his decision on Sunday to put his title ambitions ahead of Christmas shopping.

The Irishman felt he could not ignore the competing attraction of the live televised match between Kilmarnock and Rangers, even if not everyone in the Celtic dressing room shares his appetite for watching their Clydesdale Bank Premier League title rivals.

Perhaps it is that unflinching attitude, and lack of fear, that has Stokes demanding to be given the job as Celtic’s penalty taker.

Ten minutes into the second half at Rugby Park, Stokes was off his seat at home and shouting at the screen as his compatriot, Kilmarnock’s Paul Heffernan, was through on goal with just Allan McGregor to beat, only to fail to beat the Rangers goalkeeper.

However, 25 minutes later, the unlikely figure of Manuel Pascali condemned the champions to their first Clydesdale Bank Premier League defeat of the season -- and handed Celtic an early Christmas present.

Neil Lennon’s side are now just four points behind Rangers, with the gap having been 12 just a week earlier. The mood at Celtic’s Lennoxtown training ground yesterday had soared and as Stokes helped the club to launch a new CD of ‘The Celtic Song’ -- which includes a track from the players to celebrate its 50th anniversary -- it was easy to see that Lennon’s players have recovered their voices in the title duet.

“I cannot complain about the weekend,” smiled Stokes, reflecting on Celtic’s 5-0 thrashing of St Mirren and Rangers’ defeat by Kilmarnock. “I watch the Rangers games. I know some of the lads just check the results afterwards, but I caught the second half of Kilmarnock-Rangers. I was off my seat when Paul Heffernan went one- on-one with the goalkeeper. To be honest, Rangers also had good chances with one off the post and had another cleared off the line.”

The result gave Celtic an injection of fresh belief as Lennon discovered yesterday when there was not a sick note in sight. “It felt as though there were about 100 of us training on Monday morning,” joked Stokes. “We have a massive squad, although seven or eight are out just now. When they get back, we are only going to get stronger.”

Stokes refuses to get carried away by the remarkable change in the relative Old Firm fortunes over just eight days and pointed out that Rangers are still in command of their own destiny. “There is a long way to go in the season that there will be other twists and turns,” said the striker. “We have to try and keep our own momentum going. It is about winning games. Any time one team plays before the other on a weekend, it puts a bit of extra pressure on because the points are in the bag. However, Rangers are still ahead.

“It is only four or five games, but we have improved a lot over the last few games. When you are winning, it gives you confidence. As for the others, we have no control over that. Rangers were quite a bit ahead of us in terms of points, but every team goes through dips in form during the season and other months when they are on great runs. It can still go either way, so we will just keep chipping away, trying to improve gradually and see where it takes us.

“Everybody knows that we were playing well at the start of the season and we were outstanding in some games for 45 minutes, but had 15 or 20 minute blips in other games where we lost concentration and goals. That led to us losing points and we cannot afford that. Recently we have been tight at the back and scoring goals, too. We have grown into the season.”

It seems ridiculous to recall that some had considered Lennon likely to be sacked just four weeks ago when he faced a double-header against Rennes in the Europa League and Motherwell at Fir Park. Two defeats would have added up to a P45, they said.

However, two victories -- defeating Rennes 3-1 and Motherwell 2-1 -- saw the tide turn back in Lennon’s favour, and that was in no small measure to Stokes. Rennes looked poised to inflict another disappointment on Lennon when they took an early lead at Celtic Park, but Stokes conjured up two ruthless finishes before half-time. Three days later, he wiped out Motherwell’s early lead.

The visit of Atletico Madrid to Celtic Park tomorrow in the penultimate game of Group I could see those Europa League ambitions revived in the same way that the domestic ones were.

“We have played quite well in Europe this season and the tactics have been decent,” said Stokes. “Our record over the last few years in Europe has not been great, especially away from home, but we were trying to prove a point to ourselves this season. A win against Atletico would be brilliant for morale and keep the momentum going. I have played 90% of the games this season. The manager has a little bit more confidence in me this year and I have tried to work a little bit harder.

“The more games you have, the more wins you get and the more that breeds confidence. We have a big enough squad to be able to cope with that. I personally do not think there would be any hindrance from the European games [on Celtic’s title ambitions].”

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