NEIL Lennon has played down talk of Celtic winning the domestic treble this season as he remains wary of the “off day” which can kill that ambition stone dead.
The Celtic manager is determined that scenario will not be played out tonight when his team begin their League Cup campaign with the third round visit of Championship strugglers Morton to Parkhead.
Lennon says he will avoid wholesale changes to his side, despite next Tuesday’s Champions League Group H game against Barcelona looming large. He is determined to win the League Cup, the only domestic trophy to elude him as Celtic manager, but insists he is not specifically setting his sights on the clean sweep this season.
“It’s way, way too premature to start talking about winning trebles,” said Lennon. “I haven’t given it a minute’s thought, really.
“Winning the double last season was great, but the treble is such a difficult thing to do. We’re perceived to be far ahead of everybody else in Scotland, but you still have to go out there and win the games.
“We saw last season that all it takes is one off-day – or even a half-poor performance – to lose out, so I haven’t thought about it.
“Our short-term objective is to beat Morton tomorrow, forge away in the league and try to finish second behind Barcelona in our Champions League group. I will maybe freshen the team up a little against Morton, I’ll have to, but there won’t be drastic changes. I’ll go with a strong team.
“You want to win every trophy. I have to be careful because I want to keep the momentum going. Morton will come with nothing to lose and we have to respect the opposition. I know they are on a bad run at the minute, but I think Allan Moore and his team have been pretty consistent over the last few years. I don’t want this to be the night where they turn things around.”
Australian midfielder Tom Rogic, Israeli midfielder Nir Biton and Finnish striker Teemu Pukki are among those likely to feature in Lennon’s starting line-up tonight. Pukki has already scored two Premiership goals in as many outings since his £3 million move from Schalke 04 last month and Lennon is excited by the 23-year-old’s potential for Celtic.
“We did a lot of work on him and I tracked him for a while,” said Lennon. “When we did get him I was delighted. We lost Gary Hooper, although I wouldn’t compare the two, and Teemu’s made a great start. He’s an intelligent player. He has settled in well, but we’ve yet to see the best of him.
“Is he a 30-goals-per-season striker? It’s difficult to say. His record with HJK Helsinki would suggest that. He probably didn’t get as many opportunities as he would have liked at Schalke, but his scoring record for Finland is good.
“He has that international class. It’s not so much about hunger, he’s just happy to be playing again. Teemu was used a lot from the bench with Schalke, which can be frustrating for players, although he was behind Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Raul and they’re not bad.”
James Forrest will again be absent for Celtic tonight and Lennon revealed the winger has suffered a setback in his recovery from the mystery virus with which he spent five days in hospital last week.
“He wasn’t able to come in today and it has actually worsened over the weekend,” said Lennon. “I don’t think it’s a major concern, more just a heavy virus that has knocked the stuffing out of him. We’re still waiting to hear exactly what it is though.”
As he juggles domestic and European commitments, Lennon made a flying visit to the Netherlands on Sunday, where he received encouragement for Celtic’s Champions League prospects against Ajax. He watched the Amsterdam club humbled 4-0 by rivals PSV Eindhoven.
“PSV played very well,” he said. “They started well, although Ajax got a foothold in the second period of the first half. But PSV made the breakthrough after the interval and just went from strength to strength after that.
“They’re still a dangerous team, Ajax. But they are just young, a little bit lightweight. But we are three or four weeks away from playing them and they might change the way they play. I can’t see them changing their formation or their style, but maybe their personnel may be different.”
Lennon, meanwhile, has concurred with Lierse manager Stanley Menzo’s criticism of Celtic striker Tony Watt’s attitude and fitness. The 19-year-old scored on his debut for the Belgian club, where he is on a season-long loan, as a substitute in their 2-0 win over Kortrijk.
“I’m not surprised because physical conditioning is part of Tony’s game that he does need to work on,” said Lennon. “But I’m surprised the manager has made it public, though,
“Tony has gone there to play and I’m pleased that he has come on and scored. He has got that in his game, but there are aspects of his make-up that he needs to work on. Obviously, the Lierse manager has told him that.
“Put it this way, he prefers to play the football than do the physical side of things at times. But he’s 19. He has to learn that to be a top, top player you need to put the work in as well as the talent. I think he will learn. You are hoping that he will come back a better player from this.”