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Two out of three ain't bad, says Parkhead target man

NEIL Lennon sat for 20 minutes at Lennoxtown yesterday and performed the equivalent of a postmortem on a season which remains alive and well.

Neil Lennon with his January SPFL manager of the month award. Picture: Jeff Holmes/PA Wire
Neil Lennon with his January SPFL manager of the month award. Picture: Jeff Holmes/PA Wire

Celtic have 14 games left in which they will freewheel towards the finishing line for their third consecutive league title, yet the sense of flatness and anticlimax is unmissable.

Going out of the William Hill Scottish Cup to Aberdeen six days ago was a punctuation mark in their campaign. All that remains uncertain for them now is whether they can go through the whole 38-game SPFL Premiership season without defeat.

They will win the league, perhaps unbeaten, and yet this season has been poorer than last: no double and no heroics in the Champions League. Lennon professed himself satisfied overall, but not blind to the fact this season was not as good as 2012-13. "It has been a transitional year, no question," he said. "With Joe [Ledley] going that's now four or five of my top-five players who have left the club. We need to rebuild but we also need to keep winning.

"It has not been as good as last season. That's pretty fair. But we've set targets. To qualify for the Champions League was one and we got there. Win the league was another, which we think we are going to do. The only thing we've not done is win a cup. We've also made a bit of money in player trading. It's been one of those seasons where it's not been our best, I have to say, but it's not going to be like that every season. I'm pretty happy with the way things have gone apart from our cup runs, or the lack of them. Our league form has been fantastic and we don't want the season to peter out. I want us to kick on and keep breaking records."

Specifically, he is determined to finish unbeaten in the league, to extend the sequence of 1035 minutes of Premiership football without conceding a goal (the Scottish top-flight record is 1155 minutes by Aberdeen goalkeeper Bobby Clark) and to finish with more than last season's total of 79 points. "If you go unbeaten in a league season then you deserve a hell of an amount of recognition. It would be a tremendous achievement, particularly at the top level of the Scottish game. People go 'well, you have got no opposition'. I think that is totally wrong. You see what happens on any given day - you can get beaten. So the consistency has been marvellous."

Talking of consistency: Georgios Samaras. The Greek was a focus of some supporters' criticism for his efforts against Aberdeen. He created Celtic's opening goal and then performed one of his disappearing acts. Fans will be particularly suspicious of his performances in the coming weeks as it looks as if his Celtic career is winding down before he leaves as a free agent.

Lennon will have yet more talks with Samaras about his intentions, but there has been no clarity so far. "We are in the dark as to whether he is going to stay or go. It's not been made clear to us by him or his representatives. At the moment we have to take it that he is going because his contract's up in June. He's not really been evasive about it. It's just we haven't come to any sort of agreement. My gut feeling is he won't be here next season, unless something remarkable or some very swift action takes place in the next week or two."

Another familiar face may fill the vacancy created if Samaras departs. Tony Watt has scored seven goals in his last five games and described himself as content with life during a season-long loan at Lierse in Belgium, but Lennon said there is no question of him not coming back to Celtic. "He'll definitely be back in my plans. The whole reason for sending him away was to get games under his belt. He's enjoying the current spell, playing well and scoring goals - but he's our player and he's coming back. I think he's seeing life from a different perspective now. It's done him the world of good. Hopefully he comes back a more rounded individual."

Goalkeeper Fraser Forster, meanwhile, will break Clark's league clean-sheet record if Celtic do not concede at home to St Johnstone tomorrow or in the first 31 minutes of their subsequent match against Hearts.

Lifting the Parkhead crowd will be no easy task after the cup defeat. "It is up to us to get them going," said Lennon. "We have got to go out there and take the game to St Johnstone and get the fans on side as quickly as possible. It has never been any different, the criticism far outweighs the praise here. We are well used to it by now. Last Saturday will resonate with me for a while but I can't let the players dwell on it. It's not a major concern for me but it is a sore one. On any given day you can get beaten, but we got turned over."

The last question at his briefing amounted to being lobbed a grenade. He was asked his thoughts on Rangers' view that if they win the Scottish Cup, League 1 and the Ramsdens Cup it would be "the treble". He defused the issue carefully. "It is a treble, yeah." But "the" treble? "No".

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