Thursday, February 03, 2011

Neil Lennon's Celtic Roar On

Time to ask for forgiveness? Apologise for being a doubter? Time to all hail, hail Neil Lennon?

Back in December I predicted that Lennon’s reign as Celtic manager was facing a January of intense scrutiny, a month that could shape the destiny of his managerial career:

“I wrote after the Old Firm game that Lennon was displaying a worrying habit of losing big games as manager. He was failing the critical tests.”

Now that we’re heading into February we must acknowledge that Neil Lennon and his Celtic players have roared into the New Year.

An unexpectedly straight forward win at Ibrox on the 2nd of January set the tone. The only blip on the pitch came in a tempestuous draw at Hamilton.

Off the pitch, the SFA hit Lennon with a six game ban. His appeal is ongoing. Inevitably we will hear more of a storm that has lulled but not yet blown itself out.

But January has been Lennon’s month. Six out of seven games won. A relatively simple win over Rangers, a demolition of an in form Hearts and a place in the final Co-operative Insurance Cup booked.

Seventeen goals scored and just two conceded. That miserly defensive record has been achieved despite a number of injuries to key players.

The already impressive goals tally looks set to improve. Kris Commons has arrived to provide more ammunition and Lennon looks to have struck on an effective pairing up front.

Georgios Samaras claimed both the goals at Ibrox. It was one of the occasional cameos that make the long periods the Greek spends aimlessly meandering on the pitch even more frustrating.

But it is the combined talents of Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper who Lennon will look to power his team to the end of the season.

Stokes was not without his critics, attracting a fair deal of stick as late as the 1-1 draw at New Douglas Park in the second week of January.

But Hooper’s return from injury has allowed Stokes to blossom and prove what a fine goalscorer he can be.

Hooper offers an incisiveness and intelligence up front that Lennon sorely missed when the Englishman was injured. His return in 3-0 win at Easter Road set the tone for a partnership that not even Lennon could have imagined would blend so effectively.

If their double act was not part of his original plan then maybe we can also say that Lennon is carrying a little bit of luck, a crucial requirement for any successful manager.

There is still a lot of football to be played this season. With two games in hand Rangers are only five points behind.

But Lennon’s Celtic are in the driving seat, have forced their rivals into a tiring game of catch-up and established a hugely superior goal difference. It is Celtic who have left January with the momentum.

Faced with a series of challenges that many people, myself included, thought he would struggle to negotiate, Neil Lennon made January a month to remember.

February began with yet another simple win over Aberdeen. It will continue on Sunday with another big game, another huge test as Celtic face Rangers at Ibrox in the Scottish Cup. Walter Smith's side make the return trip in the league before the month is out.

Nobody ever said managing an Old Firm side was easy. But January suggests that Neil Lennon might just be getting the hang of it.

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