NEIL Lennon believes his team’s first-half performance against St Johnstone last night was the finest Celtic have yet produced since he became manager of the club almost three years ago.
Despite the 1-1 draw at St Johnstone stretching Celtic’s lead at the top of the SPL to 19 points with just 11 games left to play, Lennon was exasperated by their failure to win the match.
Efe Ambrose’s goal was all Celtic had to show for a one-sided first half in which St Johnstone goalkeeper Alan Mannus made several fine saves. The champions were punished for their profligacy when Nigel Hasselbaink equalised for Saints in the 82nd minute, maintaining their unbeaten record against Celtic in the SPL this season.
“It’s a travesty that we haven’t won the game,” said Lennon. “The first 45 minutes is the best football I’ve seen in my time here, on a glue pot of a pitch as well. Our passing, our movement, everything was great.
“The first half alone could have won two games for us. We created chance after chance and we cut them open at will.
“You have to tip your hat to Alan Mannus for making some good saves. With our passing, we looked really dangerous. I thought we looked a real quality side in the first half.
“Then, in the second half, sometimes it’s hard to replicate the tempo and it was more like I expected the full 90 minutes to be, a real physical battle.
“They got a bit of luck with their goal because Thomas Rogne slipped at a crucial moment. But it’s a very good finish by Hasselbaink. We should have been out of sight by then, without a doubt.
“But Motherwell have lost tonight, so we’ve gained a point in the championship. It’s not a bad night. We’ve lost one of our last 14 or 15 games in the league now, so that consistency has been excellent and we have to keep on winning. We’ve also had a heavy, heavy schedule and that gets overlooked sometimes. Remember we’ve played ten to 15 games more than any other team in the country. That is a testament to the players, to their fitness and their desire.
“They could easily have just decided that the game was over after St Johnstone equalised. But they set themselves to getting a winner, came close, and they will be genuinely disappointed with the result.”
Celtic goalscorer Ambrose celebrated by running to embrace Lennon on the touchline, the Nigerian continuing to get over the disappointment of his poor display in the 3-0 Champions League loss to Juventus last week.
“His reaction to the Juve game has been very, very good,” added Lennon. “I don’t want his season to be remembered for one game because, in the Champions League qualifiers and the group games his season, he has been one of the best players by far.”
St Johnstone manager Steve Lomas was gratified to take another point from the champions but accepted his team were fortunate not to find themselves facing an insurmountable deficit before the interval.
“It was the original game of two halves tonight,” said Lomas. “I’m not stupid, I realise the game could have been over after 30 minutes. It would have been, but for some good saves by Alan Mannus.
“We rode our luck to stay in touch. But the second half was much better and both substitutes, Gregory Tade and Nigel Hasselbaink, made a massive impact.
Lomas was philosophical about the offside decisions which ruled out two goals for his side in the second half, the second netted by Frazer Wright appearing to be contentious.
“You just hope that the officials get the big calls right,” said Lomas. “If they didn’t, then it has hurt us but the decisions are made honestly. We all make mistakes.”