With all due respect to St Mirren, their opponents in today’s early kick-off match in the Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League, Celtic just possibly face a slightly tougher encounter when they face Barcelona in the Nou Camp in the Champions League on Tuesday evening.
Today’s match in Paisley remains a tricky obstacle for the league leaders, and Celtic manager Neil Lennon will not let his men treat St Mirren lightly.
“You can’t compare Barcelona to any team,” said Lennon. “If you’re playing Stoke City, for example, if you play a totally different format or style of play that suits Stoke City, would that be preparation for Barcelona? What I want is to win this game and psychologically go into Tuesday’s game in good fettle.”
He is well aware that everyone at Celtic will probably have their minds attuned to Barca rather than the Buddies, so he has his inspiration ready. Last season, Celtic lost at home to St Johnstone early in the season, and this time the Parkhead side has again lost to the Perth club, albeit this defeat came at McDiarmid Park. Lennon will remind his squad of that huge disappointment.
“I will just put St Johnstone up on the board,” said Lennon, “and if there is a repeat of that, you won’t play. I’ve not given any time to Barcelona yet. I know it’s on my horizon, but the SPL is the most important thing for us.”
Lennon anticipates a tough match: “I watched St Mirren against St Johnstone the other week, and they were unfortunate to lose the game. In this corresponding fixture last season we won 2-0, but we had to rely on (goalkeeper) Fraser Forster on two or three occasions to keep the score at 0-0 at the time, so I expect more of the same. It’s a good time to play us, with everyone having been away and with so little time to prepare, but we’ll look at the St Johnstone game as a marker for what to avoid.
“Since then our form has been excellent. It took a wee bit of time for the season to settle down and to get over the excitement of being in the Champions League. The only thing I was disappointed with at St Johnstone was the lack of intensity in the second half. There was no doubt that the players had one eye on the Benfica game – you could see that in their body language and I can’t accept that.”
Last season, after that defeat by St Johnstone, Celtic lost to Rangers and Hearts before facing Kilmarnock at Rugby Park in this month in 2011 – the match which turned Celtic’s season around as they went on the unbeaten run that carried them to Lennon’s first SPL title as manager. Celtic were famously down 3-0 to Kilmarnock before storming back to claim a 3-3 draw.
“It’s sort of flown in,” said Lennon. “People say it was a pivotal day, but there were so many coincidences and twists after that. But there was no doubt that, at 3-0 down and being so far behind Rangers at the time, you’re thinking ‘you’re not doing very well here, Neil.’ I had no pressure from upstairs, it was just my own sense of pride, thinking that if this is the best I can do with this group of players, it might be time to step aside and let somebody else have a go, because that wasn’t acceptable.
“It was definitely a test of character and a test of your mental strength and a test of your abilities as a manager, and we have come a long way in a short space of time. I know that in football it can change again very, very quickly so whilst I am feeling comfortable in the role, I’m always wary of the next crisis.”
Celtic have injury worries about captain Scott Brown and fellow Scotland players Kris Commons and James Forrest, and there is a possibility of late fitness tests for all three.
St Mirren’s David Barron certainly hopes Celtic have an eye on their Champions League clash against Barcelona.
Barron knows Celtic will claim to have their full focus on the trip to Paisley, but the defender believes a meeting with the Catalan giants is almost impossible to put to one side. He said: “Hopefully they are focusing on the game on Tuesday night and will be taking their eye off the ball a little bit and we can get a good result against them. All the players and the manager will be trying to say ‘right, let’s focus on the St Mirren game’ – but it will be in the back of the players’ minds that a massive game at the Nou Camp is coming up. Hopefully it can work for us and against them.”
With only one half of the Old Firm available to face in league action, Barron is relishing the meeting with Celtic even more. He said: “It’s a brilliant game to come back to after the international break. With Rangers not being in the league now, Celtic is the one you look for at the start of the season. We can’t wait to get a shot at them. You want to beat everyone but, when the Old Firm come to town, you feel as though you are taking a scalp when you beat them.”