CELTIC manager Neil Lennon insists he could not be any more satisfied with his team’s progress so far this season after watching them remain on course for a domestic treble with a hard-fought 1-0 Scottish Cup fourth-round replay victory at Arbroath last night.
The Scottish champions, having been held 1-1 at home by their Second Division opponents 11 days earlier, looked to be on their way to a comfortable win at Gayfield when Adam Matthews brilliantly fired them ahead in the 18th minute.
But Celtic were unable to kill the tie off in increasingly tricky underfoot conditions on a chilly night by the North Sea, with Arbroath contentiously denied a second-half equaliser when a Steven Doris strike was ruled out for a foul on Fraser Forster.
Lennon appeared more than a little perturbed on the touchline during the second half but he was calmness personified after the match as he praised his players for their mental fortitude.
They will now face Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup in February, a week after they take on St Mirren at Hampden in the semi-finals of the League Cup. Three points clear at the top of the SPL and with the last-16 draw of the Champions League to look forward to next week, everything in Lennon’s garden is currently coming up roses.
“Overall, we are in all the competitions going into the New Year and I can’t ask any more than that,” said Lennon. “I’m delighted. It was a real test of their character tonight and they have come through it very well. The longer the game went on, the more difficult the pitch became. It was almost like an ice rink. You could see a lot of passes going away from people because of that. So it became a real leveller.
“It will be an eye-opener for some of the players. Winning games isn’t easy. Everyone was here, including the cameras, to see if there was an upset. There was one last night with Arsenal in England, so I’m delighted that didn’t happen to us.
“Arbroath made a real fight of it tonight and they deserve an enormous amount of credit. They are a credit to the Second Division. The pitch and facilities were excellent for a club at this level at this time of the year.”
Lennon was dismissive of suggestions Celtic were lucky to see Doris’ 63rd-minute effort disallowed, contending his goalkeeper had indeed been fouled.
“I thought it was a free-kick,” said Lennon. “We did rely on Fraser Forster to make a good save with his legs but we had good chances and a goal disallowed by Lassad. I’d need to see it again to see if it was offside.
“In the second half, we had two or three chances to put the match beyond all doubt. But things were just slipping away from people and it became a difficult night for us.”
Arbroath striker Doris, who scored his team’s late equaliser at Celtic Park, unsurprisingly had a different view of the incident.
“I thought it was a good goal,” said Doris. “But, in situations like that, goalkeepers always seem to get the benefit of the doubt. It’s disappointing, but I felt we played well and did ourselves proud tonight.”
The only goal of the match from Matthews was a stunning long range strike after surging forward from his wing-back role. It was also the 20-year-old’s first goal for Celtic as he continues a fine vein of form.