HIS players can rest a little easier. So too can newspaper columnists who dare to comment on the latest on-field fortunes of his club.
Celtic - Ledley (41), Matthews (50, 83), Stokes (78)
Kilmarnock - Sheridan (48)
An ultimately comfortable outcome at Celtic Park last night may mean Neil Lennon can dispense with the Mr Angry, railing against the world persona he dusted down in the wake of his club’s dismal Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final defeat to St Mirren at the weekend.
The only Irish manager with a bee in his bonnet – or perhaps a swarm of them – after Celtic extended their lead at the top of the Scottish Premier League to 15 points is likely to be Lennon’s Kilmarnock counterpart Kenny Shiels. From his vantage point in the main stand, where he was required to sit courtesy of the latest in a series of seemingly neverending touchline bans, he will have no doubt been of the same opinion of most watching on – that the officials failed to spot the ball crossing the Celtic goalline with the encounter still scoreless after 37 minutes.
Celtic responded by taking the lead through Joe Ledley, and although that was quickly cancelled out by Cilian Sheridan, a second half double from Adam Matthews, the first of which meant Kilmarnock were only level for three minutes, helped Celtic to, what would surely be, a satisfying enough response to Sunday’s cup calamity.
Lennon’s initial reaction to his side’s Hampden horror proved eye-popping in words, but not in deed.
Changes were minimal to the personnel he had decried as having produced a “soulless” performance and acting like “spoilt children” in losing to St Mirren. Lassad and Joe Ledley were relegated to the bench to accommodate starts for Kris Commons and Mikael Lustig.
What intrigued was where he chose to berth the Swede. He joined Kelvin Wilson and Charlie Mulgrew in a three-man defence as the home side were set-out 3-4-3. It was a shape last deployed in the defeat by Hibernian a month ago, an outcome that led Lennon to conclude he had the wrong configuration.
A trip to Easter Road is a very different assignment to facing a Kilmarnock side with a clutch of teenagers, the match labelled a “development” game by Shiels.
He was one of the many to feel the wrath of Lennon’s tongue in the build-up. Shiels was slated for stating that Celtic had “massively underachieved” by failing to win any of the domestic cups. With their League Cup final win over Lennnon’s side, Kilmarnock were factored in to that. As they were with the underwhelming, as well as underachieving, home league form Celtic endured in the early months of this campaign, courtesy of Killie’s first win at Celtic Park in 57 years, when last visiting in October.
Celtic’s early domination suggested there would be no repeat of that 2-0 reverse, though the fact that a goal could not be fashioned from hemming the Ayrshire side in was sufficient cause for anxiety.
Georgios Samaras failed to convert when clean through, Commons skimmed the bar and Gary Hooper was denied by a full length stop to his right by Cammy Bell.
The real anxieties, with Celtic’s last-16 Champions League tie against Juventus only a fortnight away, were injury withdrawals of Samaras and Emilio Izaguirre. And the Honduran’s loss altered the complexion of the confrontation.
Ledley had only been on the field for seven minutes when, as he fell backwards, he arced an unstoppable effort in to the top corner from fully 22 yards. The 41st minute opener, however, was not when the night started to get interesting. That point came just before Ledley’s strike, when Celtic keeper Lukasz Zaluska failed to stop the ball crossing his line. It was the champions’ good fortune that the man who could not be sure was standside assistant Stephen Mitchell.
In truth, most in the stadium, and the players in the vicinity, seemed sure that, when Zaluska failed to deal with a cross floated in from the left by Rory McKeown, Mulgrew, following in at the back post, knocked the ball over the line when attempting to touch it back to his keeper, who dropped down to smother it at his post. Mitchell, then, could have had no clear view, but Killie’s Ross Barbour, in close attendance to pressurise Mulgrew, and Sheridan, could.
The sense of injustice was no doubt coursing through the visiting players at the interval and that might have been a factor in their electric start to the second period that brought instant reward. Especially since the move that allowed Sheridan to score, as he had in October, began with Christian Gros outmuscling Victor Wanyama down the right channel and squaring for the Irishman to slot in from inside the six-yard box.
The goal didn’t prove the cue for Shiels’s men to extend their unbeaten run in Glasgow – which ran through the whole of 2012 with wins at Ibrox, Hampden and Celtic Park.
Within three minutes, Matthews had speared an effort beyond Bell from the edge of the area. Only his second for the club, his third arrived half an hour later, with a bundle in from two yards. And Anthony Stokes got his first goal of the season, the substitute netting 12 minutes from time, after being slipped through by Hooper and rounding the keeper.