HAVING just suffered his seventh domestic cup failure in nine attempts as Celtic manager, it would perhaps be understandable if Neil Lennon was content to see someone else identified as the fall guy this week.
For some Celtic supporters, Georgios Samaras was certainly a villain of the piece last Saturday, when the erstwhile Scottish Cup holders were eliminated from the tournament at home to Aberdeen.
The Greek international, who has provoked adoration and exasperation in differing measures among the club’s fans during his six years in Glasgow, is out of contract at the end of the season and has so far provided no indication he is willing to sign a new deal. In the circumstances, his inclusion in Lennon’s starting line-up against Aberdeen was a surprise to many and he was substituted just after the hour, with Celtic trailing 2-1 and on their way to going out of both domestic cup competitions before the quarter-final stage in the same season for the first time in 32 years.
But Lennon, while admitting he may have a dilemma over whether to continue to pick Samaras for the rest of the season, insists the 28-year-old should not be singled out for criticism.
“I don’t think making Georgios a scapegoat for it is justified,” said Lennon. “Our major problem against Aberdeen wasn’t going forward. In midfield and defensively, we were not as cohesive as we normally are. So I think it’s unfair to make any player a scapegoat for any performance.
“Georgios came into the team and set up the goal which gave us the early lead. Then we lost our way, we didn’t seem to settle at all. So it’s unfair to blame Georgios.
“I do think it would be fair for me to look at alternatives [to Samaras] in the team between now and the end of the season. I’m the manager of Celtic and I have to look at the club’s best interests. Georgios obviously has to look after his best interests as well. But the team comes first.
“It’s up to me – I pick the team. I picked him last week and I might pick him again for the game against St Johnstone on Sunday.”
Lennon says negotiations between Celtic and Samaras over a new contract are not yet at an end but he believes the former Manchester City player is now unlikely to extend his stay at the club.
“I’m expecting us to have talks with Georgios again regarding what he is going to do,” added Lennon. “But, at the moment, we are in the dark as to whether he is going to stay or go. It’s not been made clear to us yet by him or his representatives.
“At the moment, we have to take it that he is going, because his contract’s up in June. We were pretty much hoping it would have been done by now, so unless things change by the end of the month, I’d imagine that would be the end of it.
“He’s not really been evasive about it – it’s just we haven’t come to any sort of agreement. I can’t speak on his behalf. I don’t want to say something that he looks at and says, ‘That’s totally incorrect.’ So the question should really be asked of Georgios. I don’t know how much money is involved, I don’t get involved in that side of it. That’s down to [chief executive] Peter Lawwell and Georgios’ representatives. My gut feeling is that he won’t be here next season, put it that way. Unless something remarkable or some very swift action takes place in the next week or two.”
As disappointed as he was at the Scottish Cup exit, Lennon believes that Celtic’s season should still be viewed in a positive light. Still unbeaten in the Premiership, their consistency in that competition saw Lennon collect his second successive Manager of the Month prize yesterday.
“Last Saturday will resonate with me for a while but I can’t let the players dwell on it,” he reflected. “You deal with it on the day, then you move on.
“The fact I am picking up a Manager of the Month award again today shows that we have been in blistering form for the last few months – then we get a performance like that against Aberdeen. It may have been inevitable that it was going to come sooner rather than later.
“We need to turn it round again and get back to where we were. It’s not a major concern for me, but it is a sore one.
“It was the most disappointing result of the season. When we lost to Morton in the League Cup, there were mitigating circumstances because we changed the team around Champions League games.
“But we went with a strong team last Saturday, so it was disappointing. Too many of us didn’t turn up – that’s the bottom line. On any given day you can get beat, but we got turned over.
“It’s not been as good as last season, that’s fair to say. But I don’t think it has been as disappointing a season as people make it out to be. But then, those are the standards that you set yourself. We are very hard on each other, sometimes too hard, and sometimes you miss the good things because you take it for granted.
“People say, ‘Well, you’ve got no opposition’. That is totally wrong. On any given day, you can lose. Have you seen the league table? We are 21 points ahead after 24 games. The consistency has been marvellous. All we can do is keep wanting to improve and break records as we go along.”