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Lennon's Celtic are a work in progress

CELTIC's class of 2014 might have proved well nigh invincible in the Premiership this season but yesterday they suffered a rare defeat, in a hypothetical sense at least.

Leigh Griffiths and Anthony Stokes will hope to be a big part in Neil Lennon's plans
Leigh Griffiths and Anthony Stokes will hope to be a big part in Neil Lennon's plans

As the dust settled after the Parkhead side's third title win in a row, manager Neil Lennon was quizzed as to how he felt this current vintage would fare against the championship-winning side he was part of in 2001-02.

"The team I played in would be stronger," was Lennon's considered verdict. "Although the team we had last year, with [Gary] Hooper and [Victor] Wanyama and [Kelvin] Wilson, with maybe [Virgil] Van Dijk and [Stefan] Johansen added, would give that Seville era team a real run for their money.

"That was an exceptional team - probably the best since the Lisbon Lions - but Martin [O'Neill] spent good money there. At a time when the club needed to spend money. In terms of spending £6 million or £7m, we could compete a bit in those days with the Premier League and with the wages, but those days are way beyond us now.

"It's also true we wouldn't get a Chris Sutton or a John Hartson now for £6m. And would those players want to play in the environment we're currently in? The answer is probably no."

To spend or not to spend, that remains the question, even in the rosy afterglow of the celebrations which marked the club's capture of their third top-flight title in a row at Firhill on Wednesday night.

Lennon, majority shareholder Dermot Desmond, chief executive Peter Lawwell and other department heads will meet this week to define the parameters of the club's latest five-year plan. The budgets and strategies they come up with could take them to eight championships in a row.

While such strategic planning is integral to every successful sporting organisation, in another sense Lennon's future will always be now. Like most Old Firm managers before him, the Northern Irishman is well aware that his most important result is usually the next one. Should a Shakhter Karagandy-style episode recur in Champions League qualifying, all the plaudits would be quickly forgotten.

"That's how managers work," said Lennon. "Everybody talks about philosophies and projects but you know my thoughts on that. We live in the present. I don't have a crystal ball to tell where I'll be this time next year. But for me, going into this meeting next week, it will be about the close season, the pre-season and the qualifiers."

Thankfully, there has always been a synergy between the club's majority shareholder and manager and the lines of communication remain good between the pair.

"I've always spoken frankly to him and he gives you frank opinions as well," Lennon said. "It's what you want, really. There's an openness there between us which is healthy. Listen, whether you think the board are pragmatic or not, they are very smart."

IN football, so they say, if you aren't moving forwards, you are moving backwards. Clubs routinely seek improvement, whether it is measured in goals, points, or trophies, but in Celtic's case right now it isn't clear how much room they have to grow. Having had a fairly paltry return in the cup competitions to date, Lennon craves a treble and a return to the last 16 of the Champions League next term, and was even emboldened enough this week to float the ambitious idea of gatecrashing the quarter-finals. Yet so challenging is this year's last eight line-up that even Manchester United look like impostors.

"I've done the last 16 now, the next step is 'can we go last 16, can we go last eight?'," Lennon said. "And certainly the treble is a viable incentive for [the players] as well. So there's a substantial amount to go for. You always have to present challenges for yourself. My worry is, at the back of my mind, if we just have domestic football next year -will I improve myself? That's just my concern, not the club's."

With the likes of Stefan Johansen and Leigh Griffiths adjusting well to their new surroundings, the squad is undoubtedly further advanced in its rebuilding than 12 months previously, with Van Dijk the template for new signings who can be persuaded to join in June.

"I would take this squad into the qualifiers but as we progress I would like to add to it," Lennon said. "We want, if we can, to get business done before the World Cup because some of the players we're after, if they have a good World Cup their price will elevate."

To consider how seemingly outlandish goals can suddenly become a reality, Lennon needs look no further than his countryman Brendan Rodgers. Long before he was chasing the Premier League title at Liverpool, Lennon visited him at Reading, and the two men have kept in touch since an early season friendly meeting between the two clubs in Dublin this season.

"I must say I'm surprised by how well they have done because I always felt Chelsea and Man City would be dominating, but Brendan's done brilliantly," Lennon said. "Not just the fact they are winning games but the style of football too.

"When I went to see him he had a file, a really thick file, and it was his methodology on the game. Early on in the season we were in contact, largely through text message. But I think at this stage of the season he doesn't need too many distractions."

IT is a moot point whether the business of winning titles ever gets old but it certainly had a novelty factor for Leigh Griffiths. For the former Hibs player, this was a first honour since a Challenge Cup win with Dundee, with two Scottish Cup final defeats with the Easter Road side coming in between. Much like Johansen, he may also end up with two league winners' medals from one campaign: Wolves are closing in on the League One title south of the border and by the end of the season Griffiths should have played often enough for both sides to merit recognition.

"I wanted to come back up and be a winner and thankfully I have done that and hopefully this is the first of many," said the 23-year-old, whose infectious energy and knack for scoring have brought an extra impetus to this Celtic side.

"I have come in and if I have made a wee bit of difference I am absolutely delighted with that and hopefully there's still a wee bit to come from now till the end of the season. I still have a lot to learn - sometimes my positioning isn't as good as it should be and my link-up play I have still to work on - but I am working on it every day in training.

"I need to play 10 games to get a league medal so I want to keep playing. I think I played six or seven so not long to go but I want to play till the end of the season and try and set my own targets."

While this is Griffiths' first title and his first chance to grace the Champions League, for Georgios Samaras this will be his fourth, and most likely, last, respectively.

The Greek will take his chances on the Bosman market this summer and his cameo from the bench on Wednesday night lent a valedictory feel to the proceedings, not to mention showing precisely why there is likely to be demand for his services.

"The big man has been linked with very big clubs and you can understand why," said Griffiths. "He's been a big player the whole time he has been in Scotland. There's a reason the manager always picks him for Champions League nights and it because that's the kind of guy he is; he turns up on big occasions.

"If he does go it will be a sad loss and hopefully the manager will bring in somebody with equal quality."

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