NEIL Lennon’s 200th match in charge of Celtic produced what he called Utopia yesterday, as his team put in an unstoppable performance to overwhelm Hearts 7-0 in the Scottish Cup.
It was the most emphatic response possible by the Scottish champions to their elimination from European competition five days earlier, as well as a display that will strike fear in whichever team they are drawn against in this afternoon’s fifth-round draw.
Proud of his players but humble in his own reaction to the result, Lennon also offered some measured words of sympathy to those affected by the Clutha bar tragedy in Glasgow on Friday night. He made special mention of Chloe Arthur, a young midfielder with the Celtic women’s team, whose father Gary was among the dead.
Although Lennon has presided over some excellent results since becoming manager, some of them of more significance than the opening round of a knockout competition, he was in no doubt that this one was the most impressive.
Kris Commons scored a hat-trick, Scott Brown scored two, and there were also goals for Joe Ledley and Mikael Lustig, but the victory was caused less by individual inspiration and more by collective excellence – above all in the first half, when Celtic scored five times. “If you’re looking for Utopia, that first half was probably it,” Lennon said. “All five goals were breathtaking. And the performance itself was the best I’ve seen, certainly in my time as a manager.
“And that’s what we’ve been looking for for a few months now, and off the back of what was a disappointing exit in the Champions League. The players have shown what a good team we are, which we never wavered from. They showed remarkable character to play as strongly as that. Now there are people out there going ‘Well, it’s only Hearts, young team, blah blah, blah’. It wouldn’t have mattered who we played today. I thought we were amazing. Absolutely amazing. From goalkeeper to my 14th man today, an exceptional all-round performance. I know we can’t replicate that every week, but the players have shown they’re capable of that.”
After that loss to AC Milan in midweek, Lennon wanted his players to show their character and prove they were not in decline. “I think it’s a statement of how good a team we are,” he continued. “A few people are thinking ‘They’re on the way down’, and then they respond like that. That’s exactly what I’ve wanted. We are in transition, and it may take a wee while for the whole squad to come to fruition. But we looked a Champions League team today, which is what we are.”
Inevitably asked if he hoped to be drawn against Rangers in the next round, Lennon unsurprisingly said he would be willing to take on any of the other 15 teams left in the competition. “I’m in the mood for a game against anybody. We’ll see what the draw brings. Not really interested who we get.
“If we play like that, then somebody’s going to have to play very well to stop us. I hope we get a home draw. What I want is to play like that at home. It’s been a bit stodgy at home, though it takes two teams to make a game at times. It’s difficult breaking teams down when they set their stall out. If we can pick up where we left off today, we’ll take a bit of stopping.”
In common with Saturday’s Scottish Cup ties, yesterday’s match was preceded by a minute’s silence as a mark of respect to the victims of Friday night’s helicopter crash.
Asked if his team had given the people of Glasgow something to smile about, Lennon offered some perspective on how little a football team can do on the pitch, no matter how magnificently they play. “We touched on that before the game. The city’s hurt.
“It’s an unforeseen tragedy, and this is where the people of Glasgow show their real strength of personality and warmth. All we can do as symbols of the city is provide entertainment and maybe put a smile on a few people’s faces. But it will never alleviate the hurt that some people will feel.
“One of the girls in the Celtic team lost her father in the tragedy, so it’s affected not just the club but I’m sure many thousands of people all over the city. We just wanted to put a bit of lightness on what’s been a very dark couple of days.”
Commons, who had been substituted after completing his hat-trick, came back on to the pitch at the end of the game and threw his jersey into the away end. “I had changed my shirt at half-time, so I just threw it in,” he explained. ‘“With everything that has been going on in Glasgow over the last couple of days, I know there are a lot of people in the crowd who are hurting. So I was just trying to do something, maybe to cheer them up.”
The Scotland international also said he was pleased that Celtic had managed so quickly to prove that their weak performance against AC Milan last Tuesday was an aberration, albeit that the two opposing teams are not comparable.
Commons said: “It was good to come back with a response after the disappointment of getting knocked out of the Champions League. It’s onwards and upwards now and hopefully we can retain this cup.
“There is pressure on Celtic every time we play, we are expected to win and we are expected to win well. I think when we put our minds to it like we did today we are a match for anyone, not just in Scotland.”
Asked, like Lennon, who he wanted to play in the next round, Commons gave an answer that was different to his manager’s in two respects. First, he said, his focus was more on retaining the trophy than merely on who Celtic will play in the last 16. But second, he would be keen on a tie against Rangers, if not in the fifth round, at some stage of the competition.
“Anyone, home or away,” he replied. “We’re not looking at the next game, we’re looking to retain the cup – and win it at our home ground. It would be nice to get to the final, play it at Celtic Park and win the cup there.
“I would fancy playing Rangers any time. They’re fantastic games, awesome, not just for fans and players, but the media as well. It’s a great game.
“I think, in an ideal world, it would be nice if we both got to the final. But any game you would take. The more important thing is to focus on retaining the trophy, rather than worrying about what team we’re going to play next.”
Celtic will certainly not be the ones doing the worrying.