CELTIC manager Neil Lennon believes it will be “virtually impossible” for his team to complete the Scottish Premiership season unbeaten.
The champions have opened up an 11-point lead at the top of the table after their first 17 games of the campaign, winning 14 and drawing three of those fixtures. They are seeking to maintain that run in their final game of 2013 away to Inverness Caledonian Thistle tomorrow.
Lennon takes great satisfaction from the determination his players have shown in compiling their record as they take commanding strides towards a third consecutive championship triumph under his guidance. But he is sceptical about their prospects of avoiding defeat in all 38 league games they will play.
“To go through a league season is virtually impossible but where we are at the minute is very pleasing,” said Lennon. “The attitude of the players has been fantastic. People will look at the Scottish game and talk about the level of competition. But I’ve got to make this season better and the only way to do that is to instil a certain mentality, a will to win and a determination to not get beat. We’ve just had a Champions League campaign which wasn’t as good this year compared to last season. But we have set the bar very, very high.”
Despite Celtic’s dominant domestic position, Lennon is preparing himself for a busy January transfer window as he looks to both freshen and strengthen his squad ahead of next summer’s Champions League qualifying campaign.
Lennon has been linked with a number of players, the latest being South Korean midfielder Han Kook-Young of Japanese club Shonan Bellmare, who claims he has already been approached by Celtic.
Egyptian teenager Mahmoud Hassan, Japanese midfielder Hiroki Yamada – who had a trial period at Lennoxtown last week – Icelandic striker Alfred Finnbogason from Heerenveen and USA international forward Aron Johannsson are also believed to be on Celtic’s radar.
“We have made strides in trying to get one player in,” said Lennon. “We are in talks, but nothing is confirmed yet. People think we have a relatively strong squad. But we don’t. A few injuries, and we are looking pretty thin at times. The likes of Scott Brown, Virgil van Dijk, Efe Ambrose, Kris Commons and Fraser Forster have played a huge volume of games – basically a season in half a season for a lot of players.
“A lot of these matches have been high-intensity, pressure games, but I don’t want the players to tail off now. Hopefully we can get into the break we are taking to Turkey next month unbeaten, and come back even fresher for the second part of the season.”
Lennon says a recall for Tony Watt from his loan spell at Belgian club Lierse is not an option he is considering next month.
Watt, who celebrates his 20th birthday tomorrow, scored twice as a substitute for Lierse in their 3-0 Boxing Day derby victory over Mechelen. It was a perfect response to recent criticism of the player’s attitude from Lierse coach Stanley Menzo who had raised doubts over whether Watt would remain with his club for the rest of the season.
Lennon agrees that Watt has issues to address but intends to leave the Scotland Under-21 international striker where he is for the moment. “I’m not of a mind to bring him back just yet,” he said. “We’ve loaned him for the year and I’d like him to see that one out. We couldn’t put him out on loan anywhere else if he does come back, so that’s not crossed my mind.
“I wasn’t aware the Lierse coach has had a pop at him publicly. I’ll speak to Tony over the next week or so, see how he is feeling and what the situation is. There’s an immaturity about Tony and the reason for putting him on loan was to see life at a different place. If it’s not going well, then he needs to knuckle down and make it work. The onus is on him.
“He can be a difficult boy at times but there’s no malice in him or anything like that. When he’s finished at Lierse, he will still be part of our plans for the future. There’s no question that Tony has ability. He’s raw and just needs to polish it off a bit – and polish himself off as a fully rounded figure. He’s not a man yet.”